Scheduling change makes final regular season weekend more meaningful for NFL

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 1, 2011; 11:15 PM

Indianapolis Colts Coach Jim Caldwell helped set Sunday's Week 17 NFL schedule more than a year ago, when he rested his front-line players for the playoffs instead of chasing an unbeaten record.

League officials scrambled to devise a strategy that would keep end-of-the-regular-season games without playoff implications appealing to fans. Instead of a directive that all starters must play, they decided to add some flavor to the final weekend by featuring 16 intra-division matchups.

When the teams take the field Sunday, a majority of the games could affect postseason berths or seeding. The others will rely on rivalries to keep fans interested.

"I do think this has the best chance of working," New York Giants co-owner John Mara said late last week. "You can't force teams to play certain people. If you play division games, you motivate people to play their starters as much as you can, I think. People want to win those games. They don't always like the other team too much, and maybe they don't want to see that team make the playoffs."

Said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee: "The teams like it. I think it does drive fan interest. I would be surprised if the reaction is not extremely positive when we poll the clubs after the season."

The Colts were 14-0 last season when Caldwell pulled quarterback Peyton Manning and other starters from what became a loss to the New York Jets. Caldwell said his goal was to give his team the best chance to win in the postseason, not to go undefeated. The Colts reached the Super Bowl but lost to the New Orleans Saints.

Caldwell's move sparked a debate across the NFL and among fans about how to entice teams to do their best in such games - and put on a compelling show for ticket buyers and television viewers. There was little support for ordering teams to play their starters. One possibility was rewarding a team with an additional draft choice for playing its starters after its playoff spot was secured, but that idea has gone nowhere.

"If you're in that position and you think you have a chance to make a run for it all, I don't think a draft pick is going to change your mind about what you're going to do anyway," said Mara, a member of the competition committee. "It certainly worked for us playing our regulars at the end of the season. But I think most people feel like they'd rather sit people out and make sure they're healthy for the playoffs."

McKay said he would like to see reconsideration of a re-seeding proposal. That would allow a wild-card playoff team with a superior record to a division-winning team to secure a higher playoff seed and host at least a first-round game.

That could be another way to have more at stake in late-season games. This year, for example, it would give a wild-card team a home game against the winner of the NFC West, either Seattle or St. Louis.

But many franchise owners want teams rewarded with home games for winning their divisions, as in the current arrangement.

For now, McKay said, there's nothing more the league can do on the issue.

"A team might be sitting there with its seeding locked in, and its star running back has an ankle problem," McKay said. "Do we want to say under those circumstances that the guy should play? It's just hard to regulate it because every circumstance is different."

In 2007, the Giants played their front-line players in the regular season finale against the New England Patriots. The game had no effect on the Giants' postseason seeding, but the Patriots were seeking the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history. The Patriots won, but the Giants played well and used the momentum from that performance to propel themselves on a playoff run that culminated with a Super Bowl upset of the Patriots.

This season's Patriots already have clinched the top seed in the AFC playoffs entering Sunday's regular season finale against the Miami Dolphins. But Dolphins Coach Tony Sparano said during the week he expects to get the Patriots' best shot, starters and all.

"Most teams going into the playoffs the way they're going into the playoffs want to be as hot as they can be," Sparano said on a conference call with reporters.

However, the Patriots lost wide receiver Wes Welker last season to a knee injury suffered in the regular season finale a week before a lopsided first-round playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

"I think we just approach each game for what it is and don't really worry about the standings and the records and all that," Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said at a news conference last week.

This year, five of the six playoff berths in the AFC are settled, but the Colts are still attempting to wrap up the AFC South and reach the postseason. The Pittsburgh Steelers have a playoff spot secured but are trying to clinch the AFC North and the conference's second seed, which would give them a first-round bye.

Two playoff spots are up for grabs in the NFC, with the winner of the St. Louis-Seattle game getting the NFC West title and the Green Bay Packers, Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers vying for a single wild-card spot. The Falcons need to beat the Carolina Panthers to clinch the NFC's top seed.

The Philadelphia Eagles are locked into the third seed in the NFC and are expected to rest quarterback Michael Vick in Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Chicago Bears have at least the second seed and might know by the time they take the field for a 4:15 p.m. ET game at Green Bay if they still have a chance at the top seed. The Giants and Buccaneers can only hope the Bears want to beat the rival Packers, even if Chicago no longer can help its playoff positioning.

"I think this is about the best thing we could have done," Mara said of the new scheduling format. "I certainly hope it works this weekend with Green Bay and Chicago, obviously."

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