It’s that time again in the NFL season, time to play the “should ____ rest their starters in this meaningless Week 17 game?” Heading into this week, there are exactly two spots remaining for the playoffs, but there’s plenty of work left for seeding. Here’s where it stands.
In the NFC, Dallas is locked into the No. 1 seed. Atlanta and Seattle have won their divisions and are in. With a win Sunday, Atlanta would wrap up the two seed, followed by Seattle, the NFC North winner (Packers or Lions), the Giants in the fifth spot, and a frantic finish for the sixth spot between the loser of the NFC North and Washington, with Tampa having less than a 1 percent chance of making it.
In the AFC, the six spots are secured. Division winners New England, Pittsburgh (third seed), and Houston (fourth seed) are in, as well as Oakland and KC, and Miami. The only drama here is the first seed and the AFC West. If the Patriots win, they are the first seed. The winner of the AFC West will secure the second seed and a first-round bye. If Oakland wins and New England loses, the Raiders get the top seed.
So there are four teams who have the option of resting starters: the Cowboys, Giants, Steelers, and Texans. As usual, with any important decision, there are plenty of factors to take into account. I’ve been a part of two games, one with a team that was resting and another playing against a team resting its starters. I’ll get into my experiences as well.
Here are the factors to consider when resting starters.
Injury prevention and maintenance
After a weekend where two starting quarterbacks, Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota, broke their legs, it would scare any team that this could happen to them. However, there is no evidence that injury likelihood goes up in Week 17. Injuries are always a risk and part of the game, but I get where this would be the top factor.
How well is the team functioning?
How well the is team functioning on either side of the ball is a harder thing to judge because it’s on a team-by-team basis. If you’ve made the playoffs but are struggling on one side of the ball, getting reps in Week 17 may help correct some issues.
I think the overall mindset of your team is important to consider here. If you’ve been grinding out wins, sitting guys might signal a time to rest and it would be hard to ramp it back up for the playoffs.
The third factor is the age of your resting starters. If these players are veterans who know the ropes of what’s coming up, it makes more sense to rest these guys because they won’t be blindsided with having to ramp back up for the playoffs. They will know how to properly handle the time off and be ready to roll.
Does a team have a bye week or not? Factoring in the long layoff has to play a part in this decision. Do you want to lose the rhythm of your team by sitting guys from the end of Week 16 until the Divisional round? It would be almost three weeks until they see live game action again.
Roster size limits
You have 53 players on the roster and you’re only dressing 46 guys, two of those are quarterbacks and three are specialists (kicker, punter, long snapper). You’re down to 40 guys who can play. So not everyone can get snaps. It’s sometimes tough figuring out who gets the time off.
I was part of this situation in 2013. I was the starting right guard who played right tackle in a meaningless Week 17 game. We, the Chiefs, were locked into the fifth seed.
We didn’t even dress our seven most important players, including quarterback Alex Smith. Coach Reid tried his best to limit players with injuries and who had logged a ton of reps. He made this decision because we needed some guys to recover, we were playing very well, we were a veteran team with no bye week.
It almost paid off. We went to Indianapolis, were up 38-10 in the third quarter, and lost 45-44. We entered the game as healthy as we had been in weeks, and as the game went on, guys kept going down. Taking out the loss, it was the right decision to rest starters.
Recent history also shows that resting starters in Week 17 does work. In 2009, the Colts were 14-0, up against the Jets in Week 16 and took their starters out in the third quarter. Then in Week 17, they BS’d around and lost as well. They ended up in the Super Bowl against the Saints, who eventually won the game.
That season, the Saints rested starters in Week 17 as well. I played against the Saints that season, with Carolina. We were 7-8; they were 13-2. That game always stands out to me because it was a game like no other one I’ve played. The Saints were playing to not get hurt. They weren’t going hard, they weren’t trying to score. Just bleed out the clock.
I remember the end of the game, they were down and instead of driving to win the game, they just ran it a few times, punted, and the game was over. I had never seen that before. But it worked. They won the Super Bowl.
Unless there’s a catastrophic injury, playing Week 17 shouldn’t hurt the team’s postseason performance. The most obvious example of teams not resting in the last game of the season is the 2007 contest between the 15-0 Patriots and the 10-5 Giants. Both teams were locked into their spots, first seed and fifth seed. They battled that day with the Patriots coming from behind to win. Both teams then met in the Super Bowl with the Giants upsetting the undefeated Patriots.
This is an excellent example of why playing Week 17 can be an attitude-setting game. By playing this game like a normal week, Coach Coughlin was sending a message about being competitive and stepping up to the best. He wanted to measure his team against the best team in the league. I totally loved this move. But as well, Eli had been to the playoffs twice, losing both times, the team was younger, and they were healthy so it made total sense for Coughlin to treat this week like usual. And it paid off.
So what should these four teams this week do?
The examples of the Colts and Saints are why the Giants and Steelers should rest their starters this weekend, two teams with franchise quarterbacks who have been there and done that. The quarterback is the most important position and theirs are playoff tested, having each won a pair of Super Bowls.
For the Giants, their offense finally showed some explosiveness last weekend, so I would understand if they choose to play their starters a few drives to try continuing those good vibes. Also, I would start Eli to continue his starting streak — 198 consecutive regular-season starts — the most impressive stat no one talks about. But only for a series. Then take out Eli, Odell Beckham Jr., center Weston Richburg, and guard Justin Pugh. On defense, they are elite and beat up. Don’t even dress those guys.
Same with Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t even bother playing all the stars. Both these teams don’t have bye weeks either, so it makes sense to give them the one week off.
Now let’s talk about the Texans. They have a young quarterback who’s not played much. This is a no-brainer. You play the starting offense. Everyone has to go because you need the quarterback to work with the entire unit. Defensively, you can get away with subbing guys in and out as needed.
I saved the best for last. The Dallas Cowboys.
They are in a unique spot. Locked up the first seed with a rookie quarterback and running back. It’s never been done before. Dak Prescott has been on fire the last two games after struggling on the road against the Vikings and Giants. He’s 47 of 56 with 491 passing yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Super efficient. Got his groove back.
I’d play him along with the starting offense for a half on Sunday. Dak has never been in this situation before. Yes, he’s come off a bye week but not in the playoffs. When he’s in the groove, he’s excellent. I’d want to continue his hot streak. But if you play Dak, you must play the rest of the starters.
At halftime, it turns into a preseason vibe. All the backups. This would be the time to get Tony Romo some reps in case he’s needed in the postseason. Dak has handled the pressure of a delicate quarterback situation all season and I expect that to continue. If you start Romo and he plays well, it will open up the door to whispers of Romo playing if Dak struggles in the Divisional round. I think by only playing Romo one half, you don’t leave yourself open to those issues.
The right decision in almost every case is resting your starters for Week 17 if you have a franchise quarterback who’s got full control of the offense. The decision becomes more delicate when you have to consider the factors listed above. In the end, as always, the staff will do what’s best for their players.