By the time the Philadelphia Eagles take the field Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings in an NFC semifinal playoff game, six weeks will have passed since their best performance of the season, a 47-17 victory over Green Bay on Dec. 5. And it will be the first meaningful game for the Eagles since clinching the No. 1 seed in the NFC with a 12-7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 19.
The intervening stretch was a dreary one, as an 11-1 team finished up 2-2, scoring only six touchdowns and never totaling more than 17 points with a team of mostly backups. The move was a controversial one for a coach whose team has lost in the NFC title game the last three years and has prompted debate on whether a team can simply turn its game back on again.
Although Donovan McNabb, right, played only 1 series in the final 2 regular season games and other regulars were rested, "I have a lot of confidence in our guys," Coach Andy Reid said.
(Tim Shaffer -- Reuters)
"I've always believed you play your players," former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf said. "This is a contact sport. That's why they issue helmets and shoulder pads. You're asked to perform for 16 weeks a year, and I think you should do that."
The Eagles won a franchise-high 13 games and also have some history on their side in the quest for the Super Bowl title. Since the league expanded to 16 games in 1978, 28 teams have won 13 or more games, with 17 of those teams advancing to the Super Bowl, 12 of them winning it. Six of those 13-plus-win teams lost in conference title games and five others lost in an early round. All of that reinforced Reid's notion that his plan was the right one.
"I think so, or I wouldn't have gone about it this way," Reid said last week. "I have a lot of confidence in our guys and I wouldn't have been able to do this without them. I've got some tremendous leaders in that locker room and guys that will be very focused in on what's at hand coming into the playoffs. I'm looking forward to it, and I think they are, too."
Reid can look forward to serious criticism if the Eagles lose to the Vikings, one of two 8-8 teams to make it past the first round. He'll be second-guessed for letting quarterback Donovan McNabb play only one series in the final two games, and for keeping running back Brian Westbrook and defensive end Jevon Kearse off the field, the better to allow them all to stay healthy for the postseason.
"Rest and recovery is much more beneficial to your team at that stage in the season than having to drone on to your team about gaining, quote, momentum," said former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy. "A couple of times when we were 13-3 and had it wrapped up, I'd play the starters a series, maybe two, and then get them out of there. There are other benefits. Your backups get to play and you have a chance to really evaluate them in game situations, and, of course, your starters get the rest. When it's time to play in the postseason, they're re-energized and it's not hard to get their attention."
Although wide receiver Terrell Owens is out, most of Reid's players are healthy, available to practice this week and to play Sunday. Even defensive linemen Hollis Thomas and Derrick Burgess, who missed the last seven weeks of the regular season, are ready to go. That gives Reid the healthiest team he has had going into the playoffs. And if Owens can beat the odds and recover from ankle surgery by the end of the month, his presence would add a game-breaking player to the lineup.
Reid's approach is hardly novel. Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy also played it safe in his team's final regular season loss to Denver. The Colts couldn't improve their position as the No. 1 seed, so Dungy pulled quarterback Peyton Manning and running back Edgerrin James after only one series and lost the game. Both players had huge afternoons the following Sunday, when the Colts bounced the Broncos out of the postseason with a 49-24 victory.
But Steelers Coach Bill Cowher took a different approach in the final game against the Buffalo Bills after locking up the No. 1 seed in the AFC the week before with a 20-7 victory over Baltimore. Riding a 13-game winning streak, Cowher held out injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to give his bruised ribs an extra week to heal. But he also played to win, using most of his other starters throughout the game.
"This is not what we owe anybody, this is what we owe ourselves," Cowher said before the Buffalo game. "This is how you play the game. At this point in the season, we have to play the game the way we know how to play the game. Those are not things you turn on and off. If you think you can turn it on and off, then you are going to be mistaken, and down the road it's going to be very disappointing.
"Certainly, we're looking at the playoffs and we will certainly keep that in mind as it relates to the health of our players. But we're not going to approach this game any differently than we have approached the other 15 games."
So the Steelers will enter the postseason on a 14-game winning streak, including back-to-back wins over New England and Philadelphia at midseason. Still, the Eagles believe what Reid has done will work in their favor, despite the last two losses.
"I'm glad these last two weeks are over because it's tough emotionally and mentally to go out there and play to your best ability when you already know there's nothing on the line," Pro Bowl linebacker Ike Reese said after the Eagles lost, 38-10, to the Bengals in the last game of the regular season. "I mean we're human, we're not machines. You just can't line us up out there and then say, 'We're going to need total, 100 percent effort.' "
Defensive back Al Harris, who played for Reid for four seasons, thinks Reid's strategy will work.
"Andy Reid is a great motivator," said Harris, who was traded to the Green Bay Packers in 2003. "He'll have that team prepared. The loss of T.O. will hurt them, but they've gone to the NFC championship game without T.O. before. I know that team will be ready. The way he communicates to them, I know what he's going to say. He'll tell them not to look past anyone, to focus, to eliminate all the distractions.
"And this time of year, a true professional doesn't need much to get motivated. I mean, you're playing for the ultimate goal. If you just keep your eye on the prize, it's pretty easy to gear it back up. They won't have any problem doing that. All they have to do is look at the Vikings' tape against us."