NFL playoff teams weigh merits of playing it safe on final weekend

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010

As NFL teams readied for the final Sunday of the regular season with the two wild-card playoff spots in the AFC still up for grabs and teams in both conferences jockeying for postseason positioning, suddenly it wasn't only the Indianapolis Colts facing questions about which of their key players would be in the lineup this weekend and which might be relegated to the sideline.

The Colts generated controversy last Sunday when Jim Caldwell, their first-year coach, sat down quarterback Peyton Manning and other front-line players during a game against the New York Jets, trying to ensure that those players stayed healthy for the postseason. The Colts already had the top seed in the AFC playoffs secured and declined to chase history, as Caldwell's strategy produced their first loss of the season.

Now Caldwell and the Colts have company, as the Cincinnati Bengals, New England Patriots and other teams spent the week weighing the merits of playing to win this weekend or playing it safe. It has become part of the annual intrigue of the final weekend of the NFL's regular season, which has become not only about the matchups and the playoff scenarios but also about which teams are playing for something and which aren't, which clubs are going all-out and which aren't.

"A team has earned the right to do whatever they want," Jets Coach Rex Ryan said at a news conference late in the week. "You can't tell a guy that, 'Oh, yeah, you've got to play your starters,' and then all of a sudden they're not focused fully. Now somebody gets hurt. Who's responsible for that?

"The Pittsburgh Steelers aren't going to be responsible if [Bengals quarterback] Carson Palmer got injured or Peyton Manning gets hurt. Who cares? The Pittsburgh Steelers are going to be, 'Oh, that's too bad.' That's it. Those guys earn the right to do what they think is in the best interest of the organization. Hopefully we'll have that opportunity next season and beyond that we'll be able to rest players."

That, perhaps, is easy for Ryan to say. The Jets could be this season's biggest beneficiaries of teams resting their starters. They beat the Colts last weekend after Caldwell yanked Manning. Now the Jets play the Bengals on Sunday night at Giants Stadium and could benefit again if Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati's coach, opts to rest Palmer and other key players.

The Bengals and Patriots are vying for the third and fourth seeds in the AFC playoffs, and Lewis said at a midweek news conference: "If there's an opportunity, it would be important. You always want to be as high a seed as you can in the playoffs. Why would you want to be the fourth when you have the opportunity to be third? You can answer that question yourself."

Lewis also said: "We're going to go win the football game."

Of course, it might be more complicated than it looks at first glance, and Lewis still could end up resting front-line players.

Both the third-seeded team and the fourth-seeded club host a first-round playoff game and, if they win, play a second-round game on the road. But at the moment in the AFC, it might be debatable whether it's more desirable to be seeded third or seeded fourth. The third-seeded team potentially would face a second-round playoff game at San Diego against the second-seeded Chargers, the winners of 10 straight games. The fourth-seeded team potentially would play a second-round game at Indianapolis, with the Colts having eased off the accelerator late in the regular season.

But Lewis cautioned that a coach can look too far ahead and outsmart himself. Any guesswork about future playoff pairings could be undone by a postseason upset or two. Lewis also said he's wary of the concept of his players losing their competitive edge if they're given the signal that winning a particular game isn't important.

"This football team, I don't believe can turn it on and off because we're not mature enough," Lewis said. "We started the season with the second-youngest football team in the NFL, and I don't think we've gotten older over the season. Some of our older players are no longer playing."

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