When the Los Angeles Rams lost to the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night, their subpar performance on offense sparked yet another debate about whether it makes sense to rest star players in Week 17. The Rams could theoretically have dropped down to the fourth seed and strengthened Todd Gurley‘s MVP case with a win over the 49ers, but rookie head coach Sean McVay chose to sit Gurley, Jared Goff, Aaron Donald and several other starters in what ended up as a 34-13 loss to the 49ers. Other results left them in the same No. 3 spot they occupied before the day began.
A week later, the Rams came out at home against the Falcons and laid an egg. Gurley ran for 101 yards on 14 carries, and Donald spent the entire game terrorizing Matt Ryan in Atlanta’s backfield, but Goff struggled in his first playoff start. The second-year quarterback completed just 53.5 percent of his 45 pass attempts, while his receivers repeatedly lost their footing and struggled to make Atlanta’s defensive backs miss.
The Steelers might look at the Rams with some concern. They rested stars such as Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Cameron Heyward in Week 17, and while they still had enough firepower to hand the Browns their 16th loss of the season, Pittsburgh will have to be concerned about its star players coming out rusty against the Jaguars this weekend.
Should the Steelers be worried? Is there a track record of teams playing worse after giving their players a week off? I tried to identify teams in recent years that sat their starting quarterback and other key contributors for part or all of the action in Week 17, and the results might surprise you.
The rusty ones
The Rams aren’t the only team to rest their stars in Week 17 and regret doing so. There are others, including a few teams that were victimized by major upsets. Here are a few notable teams in recent years that either kept their key players out altogether in Week 17 or took them out early:
Green Bay started 13-0 before losing to the Chiefs in Week 15. Having locked up the top seed in the NFC, the Packers gave off the final week of the season to Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and other stars. Matt Flynn promptly came in and threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns in a 45-41 thriller over the Lions, which led to the longtime backup signing with the Seattle Seahawks, only to lose his job to Russell Wilson before the season even began.
Rodgers & Co. ended up playing the New York Giants, whom they had beaten in a 38-35 thriller in the Meadowlands two months earlier. Things didn’t go as well the second time around. The Packers lost three fumbles, allowed a Hail Mary touchdown to Hakeem Nicks at halftime and never found an answer to slow down Eli Manning. The Giants beat the Packers by 17 points en route to their own Super Bowl victory.
The Eagles were locked into the 3-seed in the NFC after a stunning season from Michael Vick, who had taken over from the traded Donovan McNabb. Wanting to rest his stars, Andy Reid sat Vick, LeSean McCoy, Asante Samuel and 10 other starters in a 14-13 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Unfortunately for them, they ran into the Packers, who were hitting their stride early in what would become a 19-game winning streak. The Eagles went just 5-of-13 on third down, while David Akers (who did play in Week 17) missed field goals from 34 and 41 yards out. A late Vick drive resulted in a season-ending interception, and the Packers won 21-16. Three games later, they were Super Bowl champs.
On the same day as the Eagles’ loss to the Cowboys, New England took Tom Brady out with a 31-0 lead in the third quarter of its game with the Miami Dolphins, handing things over to Brian Hoyer. One year after tearing his ACL while playing in Week 17 against the Houston Texans, Wes Welker was inactive for this game with no injury listed.
The Patriots had home-field advantage as the top seed in the AFC, but it didn’t matter two weeks later. The sixth-seeded New York Jets upset the Colts in Indy and then came to New England with a brand-new zone scheme designed to throw off Brady. It worked. Brady was sacked five times and threw an interception, while Mark Sanchez threw for three touchdowns without a pick of his own. A late Patriots touchdown made it 28-21, but after the ensuing onside kick failed, the Jets emerged as stunning winners despite entering the day as 9.5-point underdogs.
The rested ones
Not every team regrets giving its stars a break, though. Here are a few teams that took off Week 17 without skipping a beat in the playoffs:
Baltimore didn’t have much to play for in Week 17, having already clinched the AFC North title with a week to spare. The Ravens’ opponents — the Bengals — were locked into the No. 6 seed and pulled players as the game went along. Baltimore didn’t bother waiting. It sat Anquan Boldin, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs as inactives and took out Joe Flacco, Ed Reed and Ray Rice after two series.
Things went just fine for the Ravens, who beat the Colts in the wild-card round, pulled out that famous Hail Mary over Rahim Moore for a 38-35 win over the Broncos in Denver and toppled the Patriots in Foxborough before winning the Harbaugh Bowl over Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers. Flacco had one of the best postseasons ever, throwing for 11 touchdowns without an interception.
The Saints locked up home-field advantage by going 13-2 in advance of what would be a meaningless Week 17 encounter with the Carolina Panthers. They used the opportunity to rest Drew Brees, Darren Sharper and Jonathan Vilma in advance of the postseason to come, choosing instead to start Mark Brunell in what would be a 23-10 loss to the Panthers.
A month later, the Saints didn’t care. They came back in the divisional round and dropped 45 points on the Arizona Cardinals during Kurt Warner’s final game. The offense then chipped in with 31 points against the Minnesota Vikings in an overtime thriller before adding 24 more in a famous 31-17 upset of the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
The Colts were one of the most controversial resting teams in league history. Indy made the decision to take out Peyton Manning after the first drive of the third quarter with a 15-10 lead over the Jets in Week 16 despite the fact that they were two wins away from a perfect regular season. Curtis Painter subsequently blew the lead, costing the Colts a shot at 16-0. A week later, Manning threw just one pass in the second quarter before turning things over to Painter, who posted a 15.1 passer rating in a loss to the Buffalo Bills. Dwight Freeney and even Adam Vinatieri sat as the Colts were destroyed 30-7.
It didn’t matter. The Colts beat Baltimore 20-3 in the divisional round, then scored 30 more against the Jets as Manning had one of the best games of his career by throwing for 377 yards and three touchdowns against one of the best pass defenses in league history. Indy would lose in the Super Bowl, but that occurred more than a month after the would-be rust should have set in for Week 17.
Other possible candidates who rested players for some or all of Week 17 and made it past their first playoff game: 2014 Indianapolis Colts; 2014 New England Patriots; 2013 Denver Broncos; 2011 Houston Texans; 2010 New York Jets; 2009 Arizona Cardinals
Should teams rest their players?
I lean toward yes for a few reasons:
There’s no strong evidence it impacts team performance in the postseason
For every instance of a team flailing once it gets into the postseason, such as the 2017 Rams, we can find one or even two examples of a team that rested its players without any repercussions. I can’t say for sure that rest helps, but the evidence about how a break in Week 17 impacts on-field performance is mixed and unclear at best.
Teams that don’t rest players lay eggs, too
Teams break bad all the time. Last year, the Giants won in Week 17 with a full complement of players and delivered a dud at Lambeau the next week.
Likewise, teams might gain inspiration from playing well in Week 17. The Giants famously credit their postseason run to sending out a full complement of talent against the Patriots during Week 17 of the 2007 season, with their 38-35 loss eventually yielding a 17-14 win in Super Bowl XLII. You can make anecdotal arguments in every possible direction.
There is strong evidence it keeps players healthier
The one thing we can say for sure is that the chances of a player getting injured during Week 17 are significantly higher on the field than they are if the player remains on the sideline. (Teams worried about a star being rolled up on might wish to position him in a luxury box, and players can get hurt in practice like Artie Burns did this week, but the risk reduces to basically nil.)
As I mentioned earlier, the 2009 Patriots played Welker in a Week 17 game against the Texans only for Welker to tear his ACL. The Pats kept Brady in until midway through the fourth quarter, but it didn’t help. They hosted the Ravens the following week in the wild-card round and were down 14-0 after nine plays thanks to an 83-yard Rice touchdown run and a Suggs strip-sack. Brady finished with just 154 yards passing and three interceptions on 42 attempts in a 33-14 home blowout.
Besides, even if we poke deeper into the Rams argument, there’s not much there. Donald had a monster game. Gurley ran the ball well but struggled as a receiver. Was he rusty only in the passing game? Goff struggled, but the biggest problem for the Rams on Saturday night was Pharoh Cooper, who shockingly made two key special-teams errors. Cooper was hardly rusty; not only did he play in Week 17, but the South Carolina product started that game as a wideout and was targeted four times.
I suspect the Steelers aren’t concerned about what taking Week 17 off might do to them, either, given that they went down the same path last year. Again facing the Browns, the Steelers sat Roethlisberger, Bell, Brown, Maurkice Pouncey and Stephon Tuitt in advance of their wild-card game against the Dolphins. Roethlisberger subsequently hit Brown for touchdown passes of 50 and 62 yards on Pittsburgh’s first two drives of the postseason, and Bell plunged in for a 1-yard score on their third.
Mike Tomlin’s team won 30-12 and then beat the Chiefs before being routed by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. If the Steelers don’t make it to a rematch with the Patriots (or a home game against the Titans) next week, it will be because of what the Jaguars do on Sunday as opposed to a decision Tomlin made to give his stars a break last week.
Published at Fri, 12 Jan 2018 14:09:29 +0000
In order to get a feel for what the playoff teams do well, ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters asked a number of players, coaches and team personnel for their anonymous thoughts on each team. Here’s what they had to say.
What’s different about the Falcons’ offense compared to last season? “They’re really trying to establish the run game with the wide zone. They have two very good running backs, powerful backs that can get downhill quick. I would say they’re more predicated toward the run. Matt Ryan seemed to have a little more free range to get the passing going [last year]. Now with [Tevin] Coleman and [Devonta] Freeman, they’re definitely trying to establish the run game a tad more than we’ve seen in years past.”
How do you take Ryan out of his game? “He’s not the type of guy that likes to get hit. If you can get after him early, that’ll get him rattled. We know they like to run a lot of two-man routes, so there’s going to be more protection. Wherever their singles are, those are the guys that have to win.”
What’s the best way to attack the Falcons’ defense? “You have to get them off-balance. You’ve got to slow down those pass-rushers … with screens, with draws, with an established running game and then hit them with the play-action. If not, you’re working right into what they’re game planning for. It’s the same thing throughout the whole league. Pass-rushers are highly paid for a reason: to sack the quarterback. If you don’t stop what they do best, you’re just playing right into their trap.”
Prediction: The sixth-seeded Falcons understand their track back to the Super Bowl will be all on the road, and things got off to a good start with last week’s 26-13 win over the Los Angeles Rams. The Falcons won that game, in large part, because they controlled the clock by sticking to the run game, which allowed them to possess the ball more than 15 minutes longer than the Rams. Maybe the same formula could work against top-seeded Philadelphia, but the Eagles led the league in run defense during the regular season, allowing just 79.2 yards per game. Run game aside, look for Matt Ryan to find some opportunities down the field with Julio Jones, speedster Taylor Gabriel, and perhaps tight end Austin Hooper. Jones’ recovery from a right ankle injury shouldn’t hold him back. He’s averaging 104.7 receiving yards per game in seven career playoff games, the highest average of any player in NFL history [minimum five games]. Falcons 24, Eagles 20 — Vaughn McClure, Falcons reporter
On how to blitz Nick Foles: “We felt like we wanted to get pressure in his face, so we’d get up in the A and B gaps against him. That was our plan of attack, and it got him off his spot. He’s the kind of guy who likes to hit his back foot, and the ball is coming out most of the time. He’s fairly athletic for being a quarterback, but not on par with a guy like Carson Wentz. He can be mobile, but he’s still a guy that does his damage in the pocket and a guy you want to get off his spot.”
On how to stop Nelson Agholor in the slot: “With him being in the slot a lot more this year, you have to be patient against him because he has so much more room and a lot of field to use. They did that well with him, too, using a lot of the field. And you have to be aware of his make-a-play ability. Once he gets his hands on the ball, he can take it the distance. He’s explosive, and the way they use him, there are a lot of different route concepts he can do. The biggest thing is to limit his yards after the catch. If he does get you, you want to make the tackle. If you miss and he gets going, it’s hard to catch him.”
On how to combat the Eagles’ front seven: “They tackle the running back on the way to the quarterback. So they have a defensive line that will really rush up the field. If you can protect and hold them off, it will negate some of what they want to be about. I think draws and screens can help because they are rushing so hard up the field that hopefully you can slow them down or get them to chase up the field and go over their head on a screen or a draw. Stay in manageable third downs where you can get the ball out quickly so you don’t have long dropbacks to where they can pin their ears back and rush. You have to use a good snap count to keep them guessing so they can’t tee off and come a million miles an hour, knowing when the ball is being snapped. If you can run the ball, that helps, but I don’t know many teams who can do that. You want to run the ball, but you don’t want to waste plays. You want to be selective with your runs because if you’re getting to second-and-10 every time on the run, you might as well scrap it.”
Prediction: The Falcons are 11-0 this season when they score 20 or more points, and 0-6 when they don’t. The Eagles’ defense, which finished fourth in points allowed (18.4) and first against the run, has to put the clamps on Devonta Freeman, Julio Jones and a the rest of the talented Atlanta attack. The Philly crowd noise should help in those efforts. The recipe on offense is to lean on a fresh Jay Ajayi and put backup quarterback Nick Foles in favorable situations. He will have to make a key play or two to win the game. You never know which version of Foles you’ll get from week to week, but the bet here is he bounces back from a couple rough outings to close the regular season and performs well enough to push the Eagles into NFC Championship Game. They are the first No. 1 seed to enter its opening playoff game as an underdog and are hot about it. Philly is ready to let off some steam. Eagles 23, Falcons 17 — Tim McManus, Eagles reporter
On how to make Marcus Mariota one-dimensional: “Make him be a true quarterback. Mariota is such a good runner that the key is to make him use his arm. He can throw the ball, but teams have a better chance of beating him if they can keep him contained in the pocket. To do that, guys have to stay in their rush lanes. A lot of times when players rush, the easiest thing to forget is not to rush past the passer. When that happens, their lineman can push you past, and Mariota can step up and take off running.”
On the key to attacking the Titans’ defense: “The Titans have a strong front seven, so the key is to control them. If you can get bodies on them, give the quarterback some time and get to the second level, you have a better chance of beating them. In the running game, you have to get north and south running the ball if you want to have success.”
Prediction: The Titans are knocking on the door as an unknown to become the established AFC playoff contenders, and we’ll soon see how far the gap is between them and the Patriots. The game plan isn’t a secret: Control time of possession, run Derrick Henry, get pressure on Tom Brady, and win the turnover battle. Tennessee has been loose this week, like a team with nothing to lose, but accomplishing all those things won’t be easy. Tennessee is among the bottom three in the NFL in defending receiving running backs, which could mean Dion Lewis is an even bigger headache than Rob Gronkowski. The Titans have the fight to take this one deep into the fourth quarter, but they’ll need a moment of the ages from Marcus Mariota to pull off the upset. Mariota has his teammates believing. The Patriots probably will force his arm, not his legs, to beat them. Closer than the experts think, but not quite there. Patriots 30, Titans 22 — Cameron Wolfe, Titans reporter
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
On how to pressure Tom Brady: “I don’t think blitzing is the answer. I think he picks up blitzes well, moves side-to-side in the pocket better than anybody in the league. So the best way is to pressure up the middle. I think a lot of guys put more speed in the inside. They move the defensive ends to 3-technique, do a little speed package. They try to get that inside pressure because once he moves in there, he’s deadly. It’s about speed up the middle and getting him off that spot initially, because he’ll reset and still throw it.”
On stopping the run game led by Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead: “They just make such great adjustments. In the first half, you think you got them bottled up. But then they’ll put a jet sweep on it, so it moves everybody’s gap. They also try to confuse the nickel cornerback, and then everything gets confused from there. They’re very good knowing if you’re in man or zone coverage, knowing what gap you got. They try to manipulate that. The best way is just playing man-to-man, staying in your gap. But when you play man-to-man, it means somebody is man-to-man on Rob Gronkowski, so they’ll throw that little counter pass where they fake the run and dump it to him. It seems like he’s open every time.”
On containing the vertical threat with speedy receivers such as Brandin Cooks, Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan: “Just knowing their best routes. Cooksie loves the post. When they see you in off-coverage against Cooks, they love the double moves. Dorsett loves the straight go route. If they see you in press on Dorsett, they’ll throw the fade ball just because they know he’s all speed. Kenny Britt is a deep threat also; they like to just throw the ball up to him, whatever team he’s played on. It’s just limiting them and containing them. I don’t think you’re going to stop all of the deep balls, but just containing them to a few a game would be good.”
Prediction: How close the game ultimately is will be contingent on Patriots turnovers, as New England has a 143-15 regular-season record in Bill Belichick’s coaching tenure when it has a positive turnover differential. When the Patriots had one of their most unexpected playoff upsets, a 28-21 loss to the Jets in the divisional round on Jan. 16, 2011, turnovers were a big part of what led to the result. The Titans had a minus-4 differential in the regular season (21 takeaways, 25 giveaways), and while the playoffs are truly a one-game season, history says the Patriots — who had just 12 giveaways in the regular season — will take care of the ball. Patriots 34, Titans 17 — Mike Reiss, Patriots reporter
On best ways to block Calais Campbell: “He works in their system really well. You have to be strong and get your hands on him. What he’s going to try to do is try to get you off-balance so that he can pull you down. You have to stay balanced and be aggressive with him if you expect to have a chance. If you’re leaning, he’s already got you beat. You have to play with good technique and be aggressive with him.”
On whether Blake Bortles is better than his win-loss record: “You see a significant difference out of him this year. It really helps that he has a very good running game that forces defenses to be honest in their schemes. And the defense leads the league in so many categories that they’re capable of giving Blake a shorter field to work with. You have to give him credit: He’s made some throws that you haven’t seen out of him in years past. He’s grown as a quarterback. The thing you see out of him this year is that he’s not f—ing it up as much this year, like he has in the past. Look at what he did against a damn good Seattle defense [268 yards, two touchdowns] while being without some of [his] best receivers throughout the season.”
On what makes Leonard Fournette an impact player as a rookie: “He’s talented as hell. He obviously works at it. He has a great defense behind him that often helps get them leads, which means that allows the Jags to feed Fournette. He’s powerful, he’s fast. He has all the attributes you want in a running back. You don’t expect him to be as fast as he is. You watch him on film, and you see him break away from people. He has a quick twitch. He looks like a powerful back. He has all the tools. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s hard as hell to bring down.”
Prediction: Though the Jaguars intercepted Ben Roethlisberger five times in the October meeting and Roethlisberger said he wanted another shot at the defense, this game is really about the Jaguars’ offense. QB Blake Bortles threw only 14 passes in the first meeting and is coming of a playoff victory over Buffalo in which he had more yards rushing (88) than passing (87). That’s not going to get it done against the Steelers, who are the highest scoring team in the NFL since Week 11. The Jaguars are going to have to put up points and with the run game struggling (backs gained just 62 yards on 23 carries versus the Bills and the Jaguars averaged 75 yards per game in the last two regular-season games) it’s going to fall on Bortles to make a bunch of plays in the pass game and not turn the ball over. He has been hit and miss with that all season. Steelers 20, Jaguars 14 — Mike DiRocco, Jaguars reporter
On what makes Antonio Brown the best receiver in NFL: “He is just crafty. Of course, he’s fast, he’s quick, he’s got good hands. But I think what makes him good is his route running, his ability to separate. He can get in and out of his breaks really well. That makes him who he is.”
On why nobody has been able to figure out how to solve Le’Veon Bell’s style: “I think it’s just a combination of guys that are around him and their O-line. I think that him and his O-line have a good continuity. The O-line does a good job of staying on blocks … and he can kind of dance back there and find the holes. There’s good chemistry between them.”
On how to exploit the secondary’s sudden vulnerability to the big play: “They’re a solid defense. Usually they pull off far and rally to the ball. I don’t think they give up any more big plays than anybody else. … They’re playing without [linebacker Ryan] Shazier, and that correlates to the secondary because he tells everybody what to do and makes sure even the secondary knows what to do. Whenever you miss a guy like that, your stats are going to go down some.”
Prediction: The Steelers are a far different team than the one blown out by Jacksonville in Week 5. Pittsburgh is averaging 31.2 points per game over the past seven weeks during which Ben Roethlisberger is averaging 325 yards and nearly three touchdowns per game. The Steelers’ defense has allowed 10 passes of 40-plus yards in the last eight games, but Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles doesn’t have such a completion in his past seven games. Pittsburgh is eager to stop Leonard Fournette, who ran wild for 181 yards in the previous matchup, while keeping the mobile Bortles in the pocket. Steelers 27, Jaguars 20 — Jeremy Fowler, Steelers reporter
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
What is the key to stopping Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram? “They’re good players. They’re really good players. You’ve gotta get your hands on them, you’ve gotta get them to the ground. You have to be a great tackler with them guys. … You’ve just gotta be on your game. You’d better be a great tackler, a great cover player, all that with them.”
Who would scare you more: Ingram and Kamara or Drew Brees? “Neither scares me. But if I had to choose, I’d say Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram because they can beat you in the pass and in the run. Part of that has to do with Brees, but what they do once they have the ball is all them.”
Where is the Saints’ defense vulnerable? “When we played them, they were a pretty solid group. They got after us a lot of different ways. From my vantage point, they’re very talented. Their secondary has improved. They’re just playing with confidence right now. They’re playing well. I can’t say anything bad about them.”
Prediction: The best thing about the Saints this year is they can win with their run game, passing game or defense. And they proved it last week when the Panthers became the first opponent to really focus on shutting down the run game and forcing Drew Brees to beat them (he gladly obliged with his best performance of the year). Unfortunately, the Vikings’ defense is good enough to stop both. They’re ranked No. 1 in both yards allowed and points allowed, No. 2 against both the pass and the run. First-team All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes can help nullify the Saints’ go-to receiver Michael Thomas, while first-team All-Pro safety Harrison Smith can help defend running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, and second-team All-Pro Everson Griffen can provide a pass rush. This game will have to be a showcase for Saints coach Sean Payton’s game-planning greatness just like last week was a showcase for Brees. Vikings 26, Saints 23 — Mike Triplett, Saints reporter
On best ways to minimize the Adam Thielen/Stefon Diggs combo: “If you play them in tight, man coverage, you’ve got a chance. But if you let them get into your zones, especially Thielen, that’s where you run into trouble. He’s so good at finding space.”
On how to contain Case Keenum: “He’s efficient. He’s not necessarily dangerous, but he doesn’t turn it over, and that’s what has made him successful. He’s like a poor man’s version of Alex Smith. Somehow, you have to take away his athleticism because that’s his best asset. You probably won’t believe this, but he’d get my vote for MVP for what he’s done as the third guy in there [behind Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater]. He’s made himself a lot of money this season.”
On how to stop Everson Griffen: “I think he’s an amazing player. He actually was the top D-end I voted for [in the Pro Bowl]. I go against him twice a year. I have a lot of fun playing him. He’s a great competitor. It shows on film. He not only is a very good D-end, but he plays hard, he plays to the whistle, and that’s what you have to do against him. It’s the only way to stop him, to not let up and keep going.”
Prediction: The Vikings put extra emphasis on earning a first-round bye so they could begin their postseason quest in the building where they lost only one game this season. That’s an important asset to have going against the league’s most accurate passer with tons of playoff experience. If Drew Brees wants to lead the Saints to the Super Bowl, he’ll have to get through the No. 1 defense in the NFL. Minnesota led the league in points and yards allowed during the regular season while holding teams to 83.6 yards rushing per game. Inside U.S. Bank Stadium, opposing teams have scored only five touchdowns and quarterbacks have been held to an average passer rating of 73.2. Case Keenum doesn’t have the experience Brees does in the playoffs and with this defense at his disposal, Keenum doesn’t need to put up 30 points to beat the Saints. But, he needs to be aggressive early with some quick shots to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs against this vastly improved New Orleans secondary. Vikings 26, Saints 20 — Courtney Cronin, Vikings reporter
Published at Fri, 12 Jan 2018 12:58:13 +0000