One of the biggest questions in the NFL season is how teams, like the Atlanta Falcons, who have clinched homefield advantage in Week 16 or earlier, will rest their players in the final week of the regular season. There are basically three schools of thought on this, and each has shown just as many positives as negatives.
The first, we’ll call the Jim Caldwell theory. The idea here is that you don’t play your starters whatsoever in the final game of the regular season. It’s worked sometimes, but more often than not, it’s a bad idea. You don’t put your most key players at injury risk, and we all know what value health is late in the season. Jim Caldwell did this in the 2009 season, and while the Colts lost their final two games, they did advance to the Super Bowl, which they lost. On the flip side, you might end up being completely out of rhythm having two weeks off, like the Green Bay Packers were in the 2011 season, and lose your first playoff game as the #1 seed. I think this is a bad idea, because you want your players to maintain some continuity, because having essentially three weeks between games is too much down time.
The second, we’ll call the moderate theory. The idea is to try to keep the rust off by playing your starters for some percentage of the game, but not the entire game. Generally, headcoaches who adhere to this theory realize the importance of keeping the starters mentally and physically sharp, so the starters must go through the same preparation for the game they always go through, but they want to decrease the injury risk to those same starters. Most of the time, a team that uses this strategy will play their starters for the entire first half, and then the first series or so of the 2nd half. Just enough to keep them sharp, continue being accustomed to coming in and out for halftime, but not letting the get hurt on some sort of worthless play late in an essentially meaningless ballgame.
The third, we’ll call the Belichick theory. Bill Belichick isn’t a big fan of beating around the bush; he constantly wants to sink the dagger into the heart of his opponents, no matter what the situation is. In the last couple seasons, the Patriots have experienced some #1 seeds in the playoffs, well before the final week of the regular season. Without hesitation, however, Belichick played his starters for the entirety of games– most notably, star QB Tom Brady. He plays to win, even if he already has the #1 seed wrapped up completely. He is of a mindset that he will take no prisoners.
It will be interesting to see which road HC Mike Smith takes. According to Jay Adams, one of the Falcons own bloggers, Smith has said he will ‘play to win’ the game. Here is a quote of what he said:
"We’re going to play the game to win. That’s how we’re going to approach it. It’s an important game because it’s a division game. All games, I think, are important. In terms of the importance of it, does it have no bearing? It really does, because we want to win every time we go out and play."
I’m not a mind reader. I don’t know what he will really do, whether the starters will play until they are up big (or the whole game if need be), or if he will rest the starters significantly or completely. What I do know is that quote sounds strangely like Herm Edwards. And he always played to win the game.