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December 17, 2009 - Al Stephenson
No, this is not about a John Wayne movie, though the Duke might want to weigh in on this issue if he were alive today. I'm talking about the NFL's two remaining teams that have no blemishes on their records.
The Colts and the Saints (not that far removed from the days of the Aints) are both 13-0 and have three regular season games left. The Colts are at Jacksonville tonight and have clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Saints still have some reason to want to win when they host the Cowboys Saturday night. The Vikings still have a mathematical chance to host New Orleans if the Saints stumble to the finish.
Now both undefeated teams have to endure the dilemma that arises when history calls. Only the 1972 Miami Dolphins have ever gone through an entire season without losing. That was with a shorter schedule. No one in the modern 16-game regular season era has ever gone the distance without a loss. New England came close a couple of years ago, but lost the Super Bowl allowing the '72 Dolphins to once again pop the bubbly.
So with a chance to do something that no team has ever done, the Colts and Saints have to decide what to do with their regulars. Play em or sit em? Do you play your starters in meaningless games risking injury to chase history, or do you sit them (for all or much of the game) until the playoffs? My, what do we do?
The ultimate prize in professional football is the Super Bowl trophy. Doing something no one else has ever done is nice, BUT if a player gets hurt and it possibly costs you a chance for the title, you have to ask the question - was it worth it?
The Colts have suggested that they are going to rest players (read protect from injury) to take a shot at the ultimate prize. The Saints have suggested that they are going for the record books. Both teams can make their arguments as to who is doing the right thing. I would suggest that they are both right AND they are both wrong.
There is no right way to play this hand. If you play a Drew Brees and he gets hurt in game 16 and you lose before the Super Bowl, the coach is an idiot. If you sit Peyton Manning and he comes out rusty and loses the first playoff game - different coach, same idiot.
You definitely run a higher risk of injury playing, but then you can get hurt walking down the sidewalk. Momentum is so important in sports that keeping the edge suggests that you play your stars. An injury, however, makes that a tough pill to swallow.
No matter what the coaches do it may be right and it may be wrong. Darned if you do and darned if you don't.
So here is the view from my seat as I hope for a Super Bowl between TWO undefeated teams (yes, count me among those who get tired of watching Mercury Morris and others sip champagne). Take former Jets Coach Herm Edwards admonition to heart.
"Hello, you play to win the game," he once said. That means even if the game is meaningless. However, you should keep your eye on the prize!
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