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

From ESPN - January 12, 2018

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 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 are not 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:

2011 Green Bay Packers

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 did not 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.

2010 Philadelphia Eagles

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 in the middle of 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, as the Packers won 21-16. Three games later, they were Super Bowl champs.

2010 New England Patriots

On the same day as the Eagles' loss, New England took Tom Brady out with a 31-0 lead in the third quarter of their 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 did not 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 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:

2012 Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore did not 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 did not 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 in a win over Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers. Flacco had one of the best postseasons ever, throwing for 11 touchdowns without an interception.

2009 New Orleans Saints

2009 Indianapolis Colts

Should teams rest their players?

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

Teams that do not rest players lay eggs, too

There is strong evidence it keeps players healthier

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