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Should NFL teams rest starters in Week 17? Cases for and against

When the Los Angeles Rams lost to the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night, their subpar performance on offense sparked yet another debate about whether it makes sense to rest star players in Week 17. The Rams could theoretically have dropped down to the fourth seed and strengthened Todd Gurley‘s MVP case with a win over the 49ers, but rookie head coach Sean McVay chose to sit Gurley, Jared Goff, Aaron Donald and several other starters in what ended up as a 34-13 loss to the 49ers. Other results left them in the same No. 3 spot they occupied before the day began.

A week later, the Rams came out at home against the Falcons and laid an egg. Gurley ran for 101 yards on 14 carries, and Donald spent the entire game terrorizing Matt Ryan in Atlanta’s backfield, but Goff struggled in his first playoff start. The second-year quarterback completed just 53.5 percent of his 45 pass attempts, while his receivers repeatedly lost their footing and struggled to make Atlanta’s defensive backs miss.

The Steelers might look at the Rams with some concern. They rested stars such as Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Cameron Heyward in Week 17, and while they still had enough firepower to hand the Browns their 16th loss of the season, Pittsburgh will have to be concerned about its star players coming out rusty against the Jaguars this weekend.

Should the Steelers be worried? Is there a track record of teams playing worse after giving their players a week off? I tried to identify teams in recent years that sat their starting quarterback and other key contributors for part or all of the action in Week 17, and the results might surprise you.

The rusty ones

The Rams aren’t the only team to rest their stars in Week 17 and regret doing so. There are others, including a few teams that were victimized by major upsets. Here are a few notable teams in recent years that either kept their key players out altogether in Week 17 or took them out early:

Green Bay started 13-0 before losing to the Chiefs in Week 15. Having locked up the top seed in the NFC, the Packers gave off the final week of the season to Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and other stars. Matt Flynn promptly came in and threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns in a 45-41 thriller over the Lions, which led to the longtime backup signing with the Seattle Seahawks, only to lose his job to Russell Wilson before the season even began.

Rodgers & Co. ended up playing the New York Giants, whom they had beaten in a 38-35 thriller in the Meadowlands two months earlier. Things didn’t go as well the second time around. The Packers lost three fumbles, allowed a Hail Mary touchdown to Hakeem Nicks at halftime and never found an answer to slow down Eli Manning. The Giants beat the Packers by 17 points en route to their own Super Bowl victory.

The Eagles were locked into the 3-seed in the NFC after a stunning season from Michael Vick, who had taken over from the traded Donovan McNabb. Wanting to rest his stars, Andy Reid sat Vick, LeSean McCoy, Asante Samuel and 10 other starters in a 14-13 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Unfortunately for them, they ran into the Packers, who were hitting their stride early in what would become a 19-game winning streak. The Eagles went just 5-of-13 on third down, while David Akers (who did play in Week 17) missed field goals from 34 and 41 yards out. A late Vick drive resulted in a season-ending interception, and the Packers won 21-16. Three games later, they were Super Bowl champs.

On the same day as the Eagles’ loss to the Cowboys, New England took Tom Brady out with a 31-0 lead in the third quarter of its game with the Miami Dolphins, handing things over to Brian Hoyer. One year after tearing his ACL while playing in Week 17 against the Houston Texans, Wes Welker was inactive for this game with no injury listed.

The Patriots had home-field advantage as the top seed in the AFC, but it didn’t matter two weeks later. The sixth-seeded New York Jets upset the Colts in Indy and then came to New England with a brand-new zone scheme designed to throw off Brady. It worked. Brady was sacked five times and threw an interception, while Mark Sanchez threw for three touchdowns without a pick of his own. A late Patriots touchdown made it 28-21, but after the ensuing onside kick failed, the Jets emerged as stunning winners despite entering the day as 9.5-point underdogs.

Other possible candidates who rested players and lost immediately: 2009 and 2012 Cincinnati Bengals; 2009 San Diego Chargers; 2016 Dallas Cowboys

The rested ones

Not every team regrets giving its stars a break, though. Here are a few teams that took off Week 17 without skipping a beat in the playoffs:

Baltimore didn’t have much to play for in Week 17, having already clinched the AFC North title with a week to spare. The Ravens’ opponents — the Bengals — were locked into the No. 6 seed and pulled players as the game went along. Baltimore didn’t bother waiting. It sat Anquan Boldin, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs as inactives and took out Joe Flacco, Ed Reed and Ray Rice after two series.

Things went just fine for the Ravens, who beat the Colts in the wild-card round, pulled out that famous Hail Mary over Rahim Moore for a 38-35 win over the Broncos in Denver and toppled the Patriots in Foxborough before winning the Harbaugh Bowl over Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers. Flacco had one of the best postseasons ever, throwing for 11 touchdowns without an interception.

The Saints locked up home-field advantage by going 13-2 in advance of what would be a meaningless Week 17 encounter with the Carolina Panthers. They used the opportunity to rest Drew Brees, Darren Sharper and Jonathan Vilma in advance of the postseason to come, choosing instead to start Mark Brunell in what would be a 23-10 loss to the Panthers.

A month later, the Saints didn’t care. They came back in the divisional round and dropped 45 points on the Arizona Cardinals during Kurt Warner’s final game. The offense then chipped in with 31 points against the Minnesota Vikings in an overtime thriller before adding 24 more in a famous 31-17 upset of the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

The Colts were one of the most controversial resting teams in league history. Indy made the decision to take out Peyton Manning after the first drive of the third quarter with a 15-10 lead over the Jets in Week 16 despite the fact that they were two wins away from a perfect regular season. Curtis Painter subsequently blew the lead, costing the Colts a shot at 16-0. A week later, Manning threw just one pass in the second quarter before turning things over to Painter, who posted a 15.1 passer rating in a loss to the Buffalo Bills. Dwight Freeney and even Adam Vinatieri sat as the Colts were destroyed 30-7.

It didn’t matter. The Colts beat Baltimore 20-3 in the divisional round, then scored 30 more against the Jets as Manning had one of the best games of his career by throwing for 377 yards and three touchdowns against one of the best pass defenses in league history. Indy would lose in the Super Bowl, but that occurred more than a month after the would-be rust should have set in for Week 17.

Other possible candidates who rested players for some or all of Week 17 and made it past their first playoff game: 2014 Indianapolis Colts; 2014 New England Patriots; 2013 Denver Broncos; 2011 Houston Texans; 2010 New York Jets; 2009 Arizona Cardinals

Should teams rest their players?

I lean toward yes for a few reasons:

There’s no strong evidence it impacts team performance in the postseason

For every instance of a team flailing once it gets into the postseason, such as the 2017 Rams, we can find one or even two examples of a team that rested its players without any repercussions. I can’t say for sure that rest helps, but the evidence about how a break in Week 17 impacts on-field performance is mixed and unclear at best.

Teams that don’t rest players lay eggs, too

Teams break bad all the time. Last year, the Giants won in Week 17 with a full complement of players and delivered a dud at Lambeau the next week.

Likewise, teams might gain inspiration from playing well in Week 17. The Giants famously credit their postseason run to sending out a full complement of talent against the Patriots during Week 17 of the 2007 season, with their 38-35 loss eventually yielding a 17-14 win in Super Bowl XLII. You can make anecdotal arguments in every possible direction.

There is strong evidence it keeps players healthier

The one thing we can say for sure is that the chances of a player getting injured during Week 17 are significantly higher on the field than they are if the player remains on the sideline. (Teams worried about a star being rolled up on might wish to position him in a luxury box, and players can get hurt in practice like Artie Burns did this week, but the risk reduces to basically nil.)

As I mentioned earlier, the 2009 Patriots played Welker in a Week 17 game against the Texans only for Welker to tear his ACL. The Pats kept Brady in until midway through the fourth quarter, but it didn’t help. They hosted the Ravens the following week in the wild-card round and were down 14-0 after nine plays thanks to an 83-yard Rice touchdown run and a Suggs strip-sack. Brady finished with just 154 yards passing and three interceptions on 42 attempts in a 33-14 home blowout.

Besides, even if we poke deeper into the Rams argument, there’s not much there. Donald had a monster game. Gurley ran the ball well but struggled as a receiver. Was he rusty only in the passing game? Goff struggled, but the biggest problem for the Rams on Saturday night was Pharoh Cooper, who shockingly made two key special-teams errors. Cooper was hardly rusty; not only did he play in Week 17, but the South Carolina product started that game as a wideout and was targeted four times.

I suspect the Steelers aren’t concerned about what taking Week 17 off might do to them, either, given that they went down the same path last year. Again facing the Browns, the Steelers sat Roethlisberger, Bell, Brown, Maurkice Pouncey and Stephon Tuitt in advance of their wild-card game against the Dolphins. Roethlisberger subsequently hit Brown for touchdown passes of 50 and 62 yards on Pittsburgh’s first two drives of the postseason, and Bell plunged in for a 1-yard score on their third.

Mike Tomlin’s team won 30-12 and then beat the Chiefs before being routed by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. If the Steelers don’t make it to a rematch with the Patriots (or a home game against the Titans) next week, it will be because of what the Jaguars do on Sunday as opposed to a decision Tomlin made to give his stars a break last week.

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