Momentum vs. Rest

Posted Dec 31, 2010

Week 17 approaches differ across the league for playoff teams

What’s the correct approach for a team that has the playoffs in hand by Week 17? Maybe the question should be, is there even a right answer?

Not in the NFL.

This league is truly an example of different strokes for different folks. Opinions differ across all 32 franchises as to the handling how momentum stacks up against rest?

Take the Jets and Chiefs, two teams that sit in similar Week 17 situations and may end up playing each other next weekend in the playoffs. Chiefs head man Todd Haley has declared his intent to approach Week 17 just like any other week. For Haley, it’s about playing to win.

Momentum is the public choice of Haley.

Haley’s counterpart in New York, Rex Ryan, said earlier this week that there is “no way” starting QB Mark Sanchez plays the entire game this weekend. He’s also hinted throughout the week that other starters could sit, including veteran RB LaDainian Tomlinson.

Ryan seems to be favoring rest.

There are valid supports and criticisms to both stances. The 2009 Colts chose rest over the momentum of a 16-0 finish by beginning to sit starters in Week 16. Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell was torched in the media when the Colts went 0-2 over the final two weeks of the season.

Momentum was never lost, however, and the Colts picked up where they left Week 15 in the Playoffs and were eventually crowned AFC Champions.

Chiefs right guard Ryan Lilja was part of that squad. Walk through the Chiefs locker room and you’ll run into a number of players who have been part differing Week 17 approaches as well.

Take Shaun Smith and the 2009 Cincinnati Bengals. Like the Chiefs, Jets and 2009 Colts, the Bengals had their ticket to the playoffs punched when Week 17 arrived.

"It will be another Sunday for us," Coach Marvin Lewis said at the time. "I'll make those adjustments and so forth later in the week and as we go. We're going to approach it as a game we need to win."

Lewis ended up resting his starters in the Week 17 loss to the Jets. A week later, the Bengals took one on the chin to that same Jets team.

“Going into the postseason you want to have some momentum to keep yourself confident and have everybody up in high spirits,” Smith said. “After a loss, everybody is kind of down in the tank, so you definitely want to keep momentum.”

Some teams need the momentum and others don’t. It’s up to the head coach to decipher what type of team he has.

Haley was part of an Arizona Cardinals team that wrapped up the 2008 NFC West title three weeks early. The momentum started going out of the Cardinals’ sails shortly after clinching in Week 14 with blowout losses in Weeks 15 and 16, so Ken Whisenhunt opted to play his starters for the majority of a Week 17 matchup with Seattle.

“There are a number of players and coaches on this team that were with me in Arizona and I was just telling them, I don’t know how many games were left when we clinched the division out there but it was like there was a big collective sigh, everybody let the air out at once and it almost cost us and we had three games left so we don’t have the luxury of having any time to let air out, regroup,” Haley remembered.

Matt Cassel was part of a 2005 Patriots team that chose to rest their starters in Week 17. Sitting in a similar situation as Kansas City, New England dropped their finale to finish the year at 10-6. The next week, they beat Jacksonville 28-3 in a home playoff game.

Week 17 scenarios put head coaches in vulnerable positions. Their approach will ultimately be judged on future results, but no one can see into the future.

While Caldwell was crucified for sitting his starters down the stretch last season, what would have happened if Peyton Manning blew a knee in the second half of a “meaningless” game? If an injury would have resulted, the same folks who criticized Caldwell for sitting Manning would have denounced the head coach for playing his star quarterback.

In the end, it didn’t matter. Caldwell read the psyche of his team accurately.

Sometimes, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. The only win-win finishes are those that result in back-to-back wins alongside an injury-free Week 17, regardless of strategy.

The Chiefs certainly have momentum to play for. A win on Sunday guarantees the AFC’s third overall seed, but it also sends the New Arrowhead’s home record to a perfect 8-0 with a do-or-die 9th home game on the horizon.

There’s something to be said for reviving the Arrowhead mystique. In a way, a perfect home record carries a feeling of invincibility.

“It definitely benefits you to keep your momentum going because I think that we have been playing pretty good football these past few weeks and if we can continue that it just builds further momentum going into the playoffs and hopefully gives us some confidence,” Cassel said.

Though Haley hasn’t come out and said that his starters will play Sunday’s game in its entirety, he has said that the approach won’t be any different than it has all season. If that’s the case, Matt Cassel and company should be on the field if the game is tight in the fourth quarter.

 Another factor involved for the Chiefs is their youth and relative inexperience entering the postseason.

“The stage we’re in for this team, we’re still in the developing foundation-laying period for this team,” Haley said. “There are some teams that can think like that, I don’t think we’re one of those teams, I know we’re not.”

The 2010 Chiefs remain in a stage of development, aiming to get just a little better each day of every week since training camp. It’s the approach that the team has taken all season and this Sunday is just another step in the process.

Like many coaches on the Chiefs staff, Charlie Weis has been a part of teams that have differed in their Week 17 approach.

“You always raise the question, ‘Do you lose momentum if you end up (resting players)?,” Weis said. “Which has been the case historically in the past but more importantly I think it is the experience. Those teams that have been there year-in and year-out can handle it a little differently than a team that just gets to the dance for the first time in awhile. Fortunately we have a hungry group of guys that want to play. That is a good thing.”

The approaches that Haley and Ryan take this Sunday may end up differing from one another. Then again, each could have a respective change of heart as well.

No situation is the same for any one team, but the approach is almost always judged after the fact. We might be taking a look at both Haley’s and Ryan’s following a Wild Card Playoff Game at Arrowhead.

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