The best problem for an NFL team to have in December is wondering whether they need to rest their starters to keep them fresh and healthy for the postseason, the football equivalent of having too many prom dates. The vast majority of the league's teams can't relate, as they are either fighting for a playoff spot or wishing they had something to play for.
Every year, though, there are a couple of teams that get to live out this fantasy and decide whether it's better to sit their stars or play it out. This season, the obvious candidates are the top seeds in each conference. The 12-2 Patriots and the still-undefeated 14-0 Panthers each have their own respective cases for resting some of their stars over the final two weeks of the regular season. There are other teams that could have a viable case for benching their starters in Week 17 depending on next week's results, such as Cincinnati and Seattle, but those are narrower cases.
Should either of these would-be conference champs take their foot off the gas and limp into the postseason? Let's run through some of the common arguments, apply them to their specific, respective situations and see whether it makes sense to expect heavy doses of Jimmy Garoppolo and Derek Anderson in the weeks to come.
Let's start by laying out what each team has to play for. Incredibly, neither the Patriots nor the Panthers have locked up the No. 1 seed in their conference just yet. In both cases, they're one week away from really being able to rest their players, because they can each clinch the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the postseason with a Week 16 victory. They've each already clinched a week off with a first-round bye, but neither team wants to be traveling anywhere for their respective conference championship games.
New England's situation: The Patriots just regained the top spot after the Broncos and Bengals lost in Week 14, and at 12-2, they have a one-game lead atop the AFC over Cincinnati, the current No. 2 seed at 11-3. The 10-4 Broncos all but lost their shot at the top seed by blowing a comfortable lead against the Steelers on Sunday.
Cincinnati and Denver play Monday night in a game that should basically serve as a play-in game for a first-round bye. By then, though, the Patriots already may have locked up the top spot. If Bill Belichick's team beats the Jets on Sunday, it would guarantee New England the top spot in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They would have nothing to play for in Week 17. If the Patriots lose out, either the Bengals or Broncos could claim the top seed by winning each of their two remaining games.
If the Patriots hold serve against the Jets and the Bengals win Sunday night, they would be locked into the No. 2 seed, leaving them with the option of resting their starters during a meaningless Week 17 encounter with the Ravens. The Broncos would then enter into a possible nightmare scenario where they could miss the playoffs altogether, though it's a minor concern.
Carolina's situation: For Carolina, the situation is roughly similar. The Panthers can clinch the top spot by winning one of their two remaining games, either at Atlanta in Week 16 or at home against Tampa Bay in Week 17. Their only competition is the 12-2 Cardinals, who would need to beat the Packers and Seahawks at home over the final two weeks and have the Panthers lose both of those matchups to knock Carolina out of the NFC's catbird seat. A very skeptical FPI thinks Arizona is the best team in football but also gives them just a 2.1 percent chance of overtaking the Panthers over these final two weeks of the season. As with the Patriots, the Panthers can't really think about sitting their starters until Week 17 at the earliest.
So, a Panthers win or a Cardinals loss in Week 16 would leave Carolina locked in as the NFC's top seed regardless of what happens in Week 17. Obviously, the Panthers are in a unique spot; even beyond whatever importance there is in arranging for the best playoff seed and the easiest possible path to the Super Bowl, Carolina has to weigh the importance of becoming just the third team in league history to go undefeated throughout the regular season.
It would be hard to argue against the Panthers going after the undefeated season. FPI finally pegs them as favorites to finish 16-0, assigning them a 59.1 percent chance of winning out without any idea whether coach Ron Rivera will sit Cam Newton & Co. in Week 17 against the Bucs. One of the interesting arguments is that they might very well be able to sit their starters and still beat Tampa Bay at home that afternoon, given that the Buccaneers have little to play for and have been a slightly below-average team this season. Just as Carolina's keeping their starters in didn't guarantee an automatic victory against the Giants on Sunday, benching the likes of Newton wouldn't prevent the Panthers from hanging their 16th W on Tampa to end the regular season.
Rivera has been a very pragmatic, open-minded coach in recent years, famously adopting an aggressive fourth-down approach after years of conservative calls cost him close game after close game. He has previously expressed concerns about resting his starters, even at 15-0, with Rivera noting that he had been with a team that seemed to lose its edge after resting players at the end of a successful regular season, costing them their playoff lives.
Recent history of resting
Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk speculates that the team Rivera is referencing is the 2009 Chargers, who Rivera served as defensive coordinator. It makes sense, given that the Chargers went 12-3 before resting quarterback Philip Rivers for most of their Week 17 win over Washington that year. San Diego then got a first-round bye before losing to the Jets 17-14 in the divisional round, with Rivers uncharacteristically throwing two interceptions.
Rivera could be right, of course, but there's plenty of circumstantial evidence against the idea that rust was the primary reason the Chargers lost. Rivers didn't have his best day, but he went 27-of-40 for 298 yards with a touchdown pass and a TD plunge while posting a respectable 50.7 QBR. The more plausible reason he struggled was that Rivers and San Diego's passing offense went up against one of the best pass defenses of the past decade in what was Rex Ryan's first year at the helm in New York. And the most obvious cause for their loss that day wasn't Rivers; it was kicker Nate Kaeding, as one of the most accurate field goal kickers in league history missed all three of his attempts against the Jets. The Chargers obviously did not rest Kaeding in Week 17.
Ironically, the Jets were only in the postseason by virtue of a wave of teams deciding to punt their regular seasons. With their playoff chances all but sunk after a loss to the Falcons in Week 15, the Jets went on the road to play the 14-0 Colts, who already had locked up the top seed in the AFC. With Indy up 15-10 in the third quarter and the Jets on the ropes, Jim Caldwell pulled Peyton Manning and many of Indianapolis' starters, with the Jets promptly scoring 19 unanswered points to keep their playoff hopes alive.
The Colts are held up as the classic example of a team that got too cute and lost its momentum heading into the postseason, given that they were one half away from hitting 15-0 and didn't manage to win the Super Bowl. It's a naive argument. They were blown out by the Bills in Week 17 that year, with Manning and Curtis Painter splitting snaps, but they were excellent in the playoffs. Indy blew out the Ravens and comfortably handled the Jets -- with Manning having a near-perfect day against that same dominant Jets pass defense -- in the AFC Championship Game before losing to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV.
What you won't hear from the people arguing that the Colts were too hasty to retreat in December is that the Saints did the exact same thing. New Orleans started 13-0 that season before losing to the Cowboys. In Week 17, they sat Drew Brees and lost to the 8-8 Panthers by 13 points. New Orleans limped into the postseason, but it still upset the Colts in Miami to win the Super Bowl.
It's never good to use one team as your anecdotal argument to pursue or not pursue a strategy, and when you look at the bigger picture, there's scant evidence that teams who get hot in December actually do better than teams with similar records that step off the accelerator around Christmas. I studied the idea of "peaking at the right time" in 2012 and found that teams who got hot just before the playoffs weren't able to carry that success over to the postseason.
Things haven't changed since then, either. The 2012 Ravens started 9-2 and lost four of their last five games before Joe Flacco caught fire and won the Super Bowl. The 2013 Seahawks started 11-1 and failed on their first two attempts to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs before winning in Week 17 and running the postseason table. And last year, in Week 17, the Patriots sat six of their starters (including Rob Gronkowski) and left Tom Brady in the locker room at halftime against the Bills, losing 17-9. They weren't exactly rusty in the postseason.
Nobody is suggesting that teams should deliberately try to play worse and lose at the end of the regular season, but there's no evidence suggesting that there's a carryover effect into the postseason. There is an obvious, tangible value to keeping your stars wrapped up in cotton wool on the bench. The Patriots know all about how an injury can impact your playoff chances, given how they lost star wideout Wes Welker to a torn ACL against the Texans in Week 17 of that same 2009 season and were promptly blown out by the Ravens in the wild-card round seven days later, with Brady throwing for just 154 yards and three picks at home.
That said, playing in Week 17 doesn't make you more vulnerable. Research by Zachary Binney at Football Outsiders suggests that a player's chances of getting hurt in Week 17 aren't appreciably different from any other week of the regular season.
Maintenance vs. prevention
The injury issue for these two teams really might be a question of injury maintenance as opposed to prevention, particularly for the Patriots. The wheels have come off of New England's roster during the second half of the season, with the Patriots losing a handful of key contributors. Four offensive starters -- Nate Solder, Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount and Ryan Wendell -- are on injured reserve and done for the year. The Patriots spent Sunday's win over the Titans without Julian Edelman and Scott Chandler and held their breath every time Gronkowski, who spooked every Patriots fan when he went down with a knee injury several weeks ago, was targeted with a pass.
Things got worse for the Pats on Sunday during their win over the Titans. Danny Amendola left the game with a knee injury and did not return. Budding superstar linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who just returned from a sprained MCL, suffered another knee injury and missed the remainder of the game. Starting safety Patrick Chung fell hard on his hip, and he also left the game.
For Belichick, the next couple of games might be as much about conservatively managing the injuries his team is currently dealing with as it is about preventing new ones. Belichick will have to try to get by with what he has to beat the Jets in Week 16, and if he does, it's extremely likely that he'll sit many of his stars in Week 17, notably Gronkowski. Belichick has aggressively managed Gronkowski's health in recent years, removing him from special-teams duties after Gronk broke his arm blocking for an extra point and holding him out of the preseason each of the past three years. There's little chance he plays a meaningless Week 17 encounter, and if the Pats sit Gronk, they might as well sit Brady and many of their other stars. That, in turn, makes beating the Jets next Sunday even more important.
The Panthers don't have to worry about the same sort of injury woes as New England. They're already erring on the safe side with starting running back Jonathan Stewart, who sprained his foot in Week 14 and sat out Sunday's win over the Giants. It wouldn't be a surprise for the Panthers to limit Stewart throughout the remainder of the regular season. Carolina also lost nickel corner Bene Benwikere to a broken leg last week, but with Charles Tillman returning to the lineup Sunday, they're mostly healthy heading into the playoffs.
The only other abstract concern for Rivera would be Cam Newton's MVP bid, but Newton is the prohibitive favorite after a five-touchdown performance against the Giants. The only way he would miss out on MVP would be if he played horribly over the next two games and ceded the top spot in the NFC to Carson Palmer and the Cardinals, and even then, Newton should have already done enough to cement his case. If Newton doesn't win MVP, there should be a congressional investigation into the voting scandal, followed by a second investigation into why we haven't tried to use Cam's smile as a source of pollution-free power.
For both the Panthers and Patriots, the plot seems pretty clear. They can't rest their players in Week 16, given that they each need another win to lock up the No. 1 seed. If they win or see their opposition for that top spot lose, they could seriously give consideration to sitting their stars in Week 17. That's particularly true for the Patriots, but if the Panthers and Cardinals both lose in Week 16, it would be just as obvious for Carolina.
Really, though, the more that we get into the idea of resting a team's starters, the less obvious the case becomes. You'll note how I keep referring to the starting quarterback as the guy who would be benched if a team decides to give up, because that's the typical shorthand for understanding whether a team is really trying to win, but it's also overly simplistic. You can't bench an entire 22-man group of starters, and there are other meaningful players who can seriously impact a team's playoff hopes who aren't as likely to get benched.
And as much as I understand the logic of Carolina going whole hog and sitting Luke Kuechly and as many stars as possible in Week 17, it's really difficult to sit here and say that they should rest their players and diminish their chances of going 16-0. Sure, if the Panthers lose in the playoffs, 16-0 won't seem as special as a Super Bowl victory. You know what, though? Independent of what happens in the playoffs, being the third team in league history to finish the season undefeated would still be pretty cool. It will be the first thing we say about the vast majority of the players on this team for the remainder of their lives if the Panthers finish the year undefeated. I wouldn't blame Rivera and his team for resting in Week 17, but as a fan, I hope they don't.