It's hard to believe an NFL team would rest its players during a regular season game. But conventional wisdom seems to be that once a team locks up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, it should sit its most valued players.
There's never been a season where two teams have been undefeated this late in the year, and there's a possibility the Colts and Saints could meet in Super Bowl XLIV with identical 18-0 records.
Our own Bob Glauber wrote a column about the Colts wrestling with how long/if they should play their starters tonight in Jacksonville. Allow me to expand on his thoughts...
One of the major cons to playing the starters is risking injury to two of the premiere quarterbacks in the league — Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. If either player goes down, both team's chances for even one win in the postseason are shot.
Because Manning's backup Jim Sorgi is on the IR (he reportedly injured his right shoulder during practice), the Colts would have to rely on 24-year old rookie Curtis Painter, who has yet to throw an NFL pass.
An injury to Brees would mean the Saints would have to entrust 39-year old Mark Brunell with QB duties. Brunell's pass attempt on a fake field goal last week was his first since 2006 with Washington.
But, really, how likely are either of these guys to get hurt? Manning has never missed a start in his 12-year career, while Brees has started 80 straight games (including playoffs). Incidentally, the last game Brees sat out was when the Chargers rested their starters in the 2004 season finale — and San Diego lost to the visiting Jets, 20-17 in overtime, in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
How does a quarterback get hurt? Getting hit on sacks and rushing attempts. Manning has been sacked just 10 times this season (the lowest of any QB to start every game this year), while Brees has been taken down 15 times. To put that in perspective, Aaron Rodgers has been sacked a league-high 48 times. And don't worry about them running the ball, Manning has -10 rushing yards on the year, Brees has 25.
As far as playoff momentum, think about this: Of the five teams to start 13-0 before this season, only the perfect 1972 Dolphins and the 1998 Broncos won the Super Bowl (which would lead you to believe it's better to rest starters and chalk up a loss or two before the postseason). However, the Broncos, which lost to the Giants in Week 15, played John Elway through the end of the year. They lost to Miami in Week 16, 31-21, but trounced them 38-3 in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Which brings me to my next point — the divisional round of the playoffs is a crapshoot, so it's best to go into the postseason with some momentum and just one week of rest, not two or three or even four.
Since 2003, 11 of 24 road teams have won in the divisional round, including three last season. If you take out the '04 season when all four home teams won, more road teams (11) have won than home teams (10).
In addition, four of the last eight Super Bowl participants, including three champions, have played four rounds in the playoffs. So it seems that teams with a head of steem seem to knock out juggernauts who are resting on their laurels.
I'll leave you with these cold, hard facts...
-In 2005, the 13-0 Colts rested their starters, finished 14-2, and were beat at home by the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers, 21-18. In that game, the Steelers took a 14-0 first-quarter lead.
Said Colts running back Dominic Rhodes to ESPN.com's Greg Garber: "We were very sluggish in that game."
-In 2006, the Saints, after clinching a bye, played Jamie Martin for most of their Week 17 game against Carolina. After sqeaking past Philly in the divisional round 27-24, the Saints were destroyed by the Bears in the NFC Championship game 39-14.
-That same year the Colts kept the pedal down through the end of the season and won the Super Bowl.
-In 2007, the Colts, after securing a bye, rested Manning the final week of the season and were defeated by the Chargers 28-24 at home in the divisional round.
-Last season, the Colts, with no hope of overtaking the Titans for the division title, played Sorgi for most of their Week 17 game. They lost at San Diego in the wild card round 23-17.
The definition of insanity is repeating something over and over again and expecting a different result. If Indy coach Jim Caldwell is smart, he'll keep charging through the end of the season.
Said Caldwell earlier this week: "We have to look at our team and make certain we stay in rhythm ... We're going to approach the 14th game exactly like we did 1 through 13."
Sounds good to me. I'll take Colts -3.5 at the Jags tonight.
And I'll bet either Indy or New Orleans is popping bottles with the '72 Dolphins when this season is through.