Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Thank you, 49ers

The 49ers gave the Vikings a nice holiday gift this year, in the form of a 24-9 whipping of the Arizona Cardinals. To be fair, the Cards beat themselves, making seven turnovers and making me more confident that, apart from New Orleans and maybe Philadelphia (which just frightens me based on last year), I don't think there's an NFC team the Vikings can't handle, and handle fairly easily at home once the playoffs start. (More on the Vikings' playoff potential seeding at the end of this post.)

Around this time of year, once teams start clinching home-field advantage and other playoff positioning, the inevitably tired conversations pop up about whether teams should rest their players or keep playing hard. This year, with two 13-0 teams, the talk is even more spirited. There are, in effect, four possible outcomes, and three of them are bad:

Team rests its starters:
A) They then win their first playoff game -- Good call, coach, they needed the rest!
B) They lose their first playoff game -- Coach, you were too soft on them!

Team doesn't rest its starters:
A) There's a crucial injury in a "meaningless" game -- What were you thinking playing that guy?
B) There are no injuries -- Whew, we got away with that one!

Remember when the Patriots were 15-0 a few years ago and played all-out in that Saturday game against the Giants? What if Tom Brady or Randy Moss would have been injured during that game? It would have gone down at Bill Belichick's second-worst decision ever (after the 4th and 2 this year, of course).

There are simply so many variables that can happen during a game or games that any talk ascribing any particular meaning or consequences to whether guys play or not during their "meaningless" games is just that -- talk. No matter how it's approached, if something bad happens, it will be because the coach played guys he shouldn't have or didn't give them enough rest.

I especially "love" the argument that guys need to keep playing to stay sharp and if they lose in the first round (result B from above), it was because they got too much rest at the end of the season. Consider this: Suppose that Peyton Manning was hurt in, say, week 8. We'll assume it's a type of injury that wouldn't be expected to linger or otherwise affect his football performance when he comes back, say a poke in the eye or a concussion (which I realize is bad, but once you recover from it, it doesn't generally hamper you like, say, a dislocated shoulder or broken leg). When he comes back in, say, week 12, everybody expects him to be at full strength and to play like he always did. Even Peyton himself, who's been able to work out this entire time and still do pretty much everything expected of him except get out on the field, would think that he'll be perfectly fine when he comes back. And he probably will. If he's a little off or has a bad game, hardly anyone would attribute it to rust or other consequences of missing three weeks.

Ah, but now it's week 15 of the regular season. If Peyton misses the next three games -- strictly on a voluntary basis -- and the Colts lay an egg in their playoff game, it'll be because they "took those three games off," and that will be the beginning and the end of the discussion as to why the team lost. Never mind that most teams that do rest their starters do so because they're good teams that have secured a high seed and have the ability to rest them and usually progress far in the playoffs. It's only the failures that we notice and that we try to ascribe some higher meaning to, other than, "The other team was better."

All of which brings us back to the Vikings. If they can beat Carolina next week and if Philadelphia loses either of its next two games, and the Saints can somehow find a way past Dallas and Tampa Bay at home, then, by the time the Vikings take the field against Chicago on Monday night in 13 days, the NFC standings would look like this:

1) New Orleans: 15-0
2) Minnesota: 12-2
3) Philadelphia: 10-5

No other team in the conference could be better than 10-5 except the Packers, who could be 11-4, but the Vikings would still hold tiebreak over them in the division. Thus, the Vikings would be locked into the #2 seed, with two games left to play, thus allowing them to give vital rest to Brett Favre -- who will probably play enough to keep his streak going -- Adrian Peterson, and other vital members of the team. And if that makes the team go 12-4 and keeps everyone fresh for the playoffs, I'm all for it.

If the Saints lose two of their next three games, the Vikings could run the table and tie them at 14-2 and own a better conference record, thus winning the tiebreaker and securing the #1 seed. There's about zero chance the Saints lose to the Bucs at home in two weeks, so that would require them losing to Dallas at home and one the road against Carolina, an unlikely proposition.

But hey, it doesn't hurt to dream.

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