Sunday shaping up as strange day
With seven of the top eight seeds already wrapped up, it's going to be a weird Sunday of football.
Peyton Manning made history last week by throwing his 49th touchdown pass of the season, breaking Dan Marino's single-season record of 48 TD. It was one of the highlights of the year.
Sunday will go down in the books for different reasons. First of all, it's the first time 32 teams have played on one day. There are no Monday night or Saturday games. But it's also different because seven teams have already locked up their playoff seeding and have nothing to gain or lose by playing.
Eagles coach Andy Reid yanked Donovan McNabb after one series of the Monday night game against the Rams. Halfback Brian Westbrook never stepped onto the field. Already without Terrell Owens through at least the Super Bowl, Reid isn't going into the playoffs with more injuries if he can help it. Even in resting and pulling key starters, cornerback Lito Sheppard hurt a quad and tight end Chad Lewis injured a tricep.
Expect to see a lot of pulled starters and short days for many key players, so, as a public service, here is a guide to what should be one of strangest Sunday's in NFL history. It's preseason in the regular season.
1. League stance: The NFL didn't send out memos reminding playoff teams to play their starters. Why? Teams earned the ability to do what they want with their players by what they did in the first 16 weeks. Sure, it makes for some ugly games. In the big picture, the NFL believes the quality of the playoffs will make up for this strange week. Only teams fighting for wild-card spots are truly affected by these "exhibition" type games. Hey, those teams had the same opportunity during the first 16 weeks to put themselves in the same position that teams like the Eagles and Colts are in. Their complaints are without merit. Tough break.
2. Reasons for sitting players: Andy Reid is trying to go to his fourth consecutive NFC title game. He's learned a lot during the Eagles' recent playoff runs and his team is experienced. It's a veteran team that practices well and doesn't have to worry about the silly notion of heading into a bye week with momentum. In fact, the Eagles have been one of the best teams coming off bye weeks under Reid. A year ago, he tried the notion of "playing to win" late in the season. Linebacker Carlos Emmons broke a leg in Week 16 against the 49ers and was lost for the playoffs. Westbrook tore a triceps muscle in the season-finale against Washington and was lost for the playoffs. Reid learned something. It's better to prioritize and make sure you don't lose players who are vital to a Super Bowl bid. Owens is already gone. Westbrook's loss took enough out of the offense last season that the Eagles lost to the Panthers in the NFC Championship game. Reid is not risking Westbrook again and he's certainly not risking McNabb. He's just being smart.
3. Argument against sitting players: Ravens coach Brian Billick subscribes to the old 49ers theory of playing out the regular season with starters and having momentum going into the playoffs even if the finale is meaningless. He had two chances to bench starters in Week 17 in 2000 and 2003 and kept them in for the entire game. "I couldn't have gotten my guys out of the game if I wanted [in 2003]," Billick said. "In fact, I tried to in the Jet game , I tried to pull a couple of guys and they said, 'Bull---- we're not coming out." Billick rolled the dice and didn't suffer any significant injuries. Long-time 49ers coach Bill Walsh used to believe that it was more important to keep the focus of the team. He wanted his offense to keep sharp and not get sloppy. Can't argue with his track record because he has the Super Bowl rings.
4. Yeah but ...: The counter argument to the old Walsh "play-it-out" theory is that the 49ers kept in their starters when there wasn't a salary cap and expansion hadn't ballooned the league to 32 teams. Rosters are razor thin these days. In 1970s and 1980s, there was no free agency, so teams could keep around more veteran backups in case of injuries. Now, the replacement pool for players is different. Teams in 2004 aren't blessed with deep benches. Plus, if a team loses a player for a long time, they can only go to the practice squad to fill the roster spot because there isn't much on the street. A practice squader for a starter? It's better not to risk a key injury this late.
5. What's the line? Three of top four seeds in the AFC and the top three in the NFC are all underdogs this weekend, significant underdogs. The Falcons are five-point underdogs to the Seahawks; the Steelers are nine-point underdogs to the Bills; the Packers are three-point dogs to the Bears; the Colts are 8½ point underdogs to the Broncos; the Eagles are three-point dogs to the Bengals; and Chargers are three-point underdogs to the Chiefs. Among the playoff elite, only the Patriots are favored. They are a 13½-point favorite over the 49ers. Betting lines are drawn to attract betters, and betters aren't buying the notion that these playoff teams are playing to win. Think about it for a second. What the betters are saying is the playoff teams who clinched spots already will lose by a field goal or more at home and by a touchdown on the road. The Eagles an underdog at home to the Bengals? That's just strange to see.
6. Fantasy nightmare: This weekend is as perfect an example as you can get of why your fantasy playoffs should end in Week 16 or even Week 15. By benching key starters, fantasy teams will be in disarray. Top quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning, McNabb, Drew Brees, Brett Favre and others won't have a chance to put up big numbers because they aren't expected to play the entire game. Marty Schottenheimer is thinking about not playing halfback LaDainian Tomlinson because the Chargers open the playoffs on Saturday, a six-day turnaround. Westbrook's out. Ahman Green of the Packers is only supposed to make a cameo appearance. So who are the backs to watch. Shaun Alexander of the Seahawks has the league lead with 1,616 yards and the Seahawks might need to play the entire game to win the NFC West. He's a decent bet, but if you have the flexibility to make a change late, watch what happens in the early games. If the Rams lose, Alexander could see limited action. Rudi Johnson of the Bengals and Tiki Barber of the Giants aren't going to the playoffs so they can play the entire game. The Bills need a good day from Willis McGahee so he'll go all out against the Steelers. The later 4 p.m. Eastern games are a little more dangerous because many of the early games will determine whether these games are meaningful. Buyer beware.
7. Incentive clauses: Some players will be playing for incentive clauses, but they can't count on their coaches keeping them on the field for fear of injury. Corey Dillon needs 81 rushing yards to lock up the final $375,000 of incentives. If he gets those final yards to get to 1,600 yards rushing, he would have made $2.25 million in incentives after restructuring his contract when he was acquired from Cincinnati. Against the 49ers, Dillon might be able to get those numbers in the first half alone. What's not known is how long Bill Belichick will keep him in the game.
8. Teams with injury worries already: The Patriots have a lot to be worried about. Last week, defensive end Richard Seymour suffered a knee injury. Belichick is the best in the league at not divulging the length of time it will take for a player's return. Patriots players aren't allowed to talk about their injuries, and the organization tells player's agents to shut up. The Seymour injury could be significant. The initial prognosis is three-to-six weeks. If he heals quickly, he'll be ready for the Patriots first playoff games. If it takes longer, Seymour could miss two playoffs game. He's their best, most dominating defensive player. Add in the injury concerns in their secondary (Ty Law has been out since Week 8 with a foot injury and Tyrone Poole was just placed on IR with a knee injury) and the Patriots are likely just hoping to come out of Week 17 with no more injuries.
9. Experimenting: The fact that these games are exhibitions gives coaches the luxury to try things. For Steelers coach Bill Cowher, he has a chance to get Duce Staley back from a hamstring injury and linebacker Kendrell Bell back from groin surgery. They can use Sunday's game against the Bills to get back in football shape and get tuned up for the playoffs. There is a chance Belichick could get Law on the field. He's been out most of the season with a broken foot, and his return is vital to their Super Bowl run. Though this isn't an exhibition game for the Broncos, Mike Shanahan might have a chance to get Trevor Pryce back in the nickel defense for some plays. Pryce has missed almost all of the season following back surgery. He's one of the most dominating defensive players in the AFC and could help the Broncos if they make the playoffs.
10. Pressure: The Jets face probably the most pressure among the teams fighting for a playoff spot. They started 5-0 and could be knocked out of the playoffs if they lose. Chad Pennington has been taking heat for his lack of arm strength coming off a rotator cuff injury. Critics, and maybe some of his players, want to run offensive coordinator Paul Hackett out of town. Offensive players are grumbling. A loss for the Jets and no trip to the playoffs could ruin a great season and make for a long offseason.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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