As any number of “18-1” tees brandished around the NY/NJ area in the spring of 2008 indicated, going 16-0 in the regular season is a somewhat hallow achievement if you can’t win the Super Bowl — presumably the goal of every NFL head coach, including Indianapolis’ Jim Caldwell. However, the day after the Colts extended a lifeline to the NY Jets by sitting key starters during the 2nd half of yesterday’s 29-15 loss to Gang Green, Caldwell was castigated by Indy Star columnist Bob Kravitz, who suggests the 1972 Miami Dolphins “should be sending a case of champagne up to Colts President Bill Polian and coach Jim Caldwell first thing this morning.”

The Colts treated the second half as if it were gum on the bottom of a shoe. They sent in backup quarterback Curtis Painter to hold on to a 15-10 lead, and it was like having Mel’s Detailing put the finishing touches on the Sistine Chapel.

It felt wrong. It was wrong. Cheap, really.

In the end, this doesn’t make the Colts more or less well-equipped to handle the coming postseason. The truth is, they could win the whole thing (in which case Polian and Caldwell will accept the mantle of genius) or they could lose their first playoff game (in which case, we will mention this game a couple thousand times). This wasn’t about that, and really, nothing changes in terms of the team’s Super Bowl aspirations.

What mattered — or at least mattered to some of us, including the players — was the chance to become one of football’s forever teams. The Jets? At home? With that offense? And then a game at Buffalo next week? It was right there. Right there.

The Colts casually gave away this thing, spitting on football history along the way. Maybe an organization that has lost its first-round playoff game four times in seven years knows a better way, but we’ve seen what happens when this team stops trying to do its best to win. Saw it in 2005. Saw it in ’07.

Though Kravitz is correct in stating resting starters down the stretch guaranteed nothing for the Colts in previous seasons, he can’t possibly say yesterday’s moves didn’t leave Indy better prepared for the games that really count. If one of the Jets pulls a Mo Lewis on Manning (I know, pretty unlikely), yesterday’s crowd isn’t merely annoyed, they’re downright homicidal. Caldwell has to measure risk versus reward and I suspect when it comes to making history, he’d prefer not to be the guy who allowed his franchise QB to suffer an injury that would all but certainly derail the Colts’ title aspirations. If Kravitz believes Curtis Painter is ready to be the modern Jeff Hostetler or Earl Morrall, he’s the only one.