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Most playoff-bound coaches won't tip their hand Sunday
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The first are those teams that must go all-in for a chance at reaching the playoffs or improving their seeding. The second: those with the luxury of keeping their hands close to the vest because they've already qualified.
Indianapolis, New Orleans and San Diego will assuredly be resting starters Sunday with their postseason slots secured. Three other playoff-bound teams may do the same because of a scheduling quirk — the possibility of a first-round game against an opponent being played in Week 17.
This has happened only nine times since the NFL adopted a 12-team playoff format in 1990. Yet there are four potential first-round rematches this postseason — Philadelphia vs. Dallas, Green Bay vs. Arizona, New England vs. Houston, and Cincinnati vs. the New York Jets.
For this to happen, Dallas, Houston, Minnesota, Oakland, Kansas City and the Jets must win Sunday. It's far-fetched, but stranger things have happened.
The Patriots (10-5) and Bengals (10-5) already have won their respective divisions but remain in a tight battle for the No. 3 playoff seed. If both teams finish with the same record, the Patriots would likely win the tiebreaker because of better strength of victory. The opponents New England has beaten have a 65-85 record; Cincinnati's opponents are 61-89.
But in all probability, the Patriots and Bengals will bench starters for most if not all of Sunday's contests. And unlike what Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley says, it isn't because Cincinnati and New England will "lay down" against New York and Houston in hopes of keeping the potentially dangerous Steelers out of the playoffs.
For the Bengals and Patriots, the benefits of a conservative approach outweigh those that come with being the No. 3 seed. With a first-round home game already assured, Cincinnati or New England likely wouldn't want to risk injury to key players or field those who could use the rest. From a strategic standpoint, neither squad has to lay its cards on the table like Houston and New York, both of which need victories to keep their playoff hopes alive. Vanilla schemes from New England and Cincinnati are a strong likelihood, because neither team would want to show much with potential rematches looming next weekend. The Jets and Texans don't have that luxury.
"Trust me, we're not saving anything," Jets coach Rex Ryan said Thursday while laughing. "That's pretty safe to say."
But having to take their best shot now could haunt New York and Houston the following weekend. The 2004 Denver Broncos learned that the hard way the last time there was a Week 17 rematch in the first round of the postseason.
With the No. 3 seed already clinched, Indianapolis rested its starters in a game Denver needed to win for a playoff berth. The Broncos qualified with a 33-14 victory.
The next weekend, Indianapolis routed Denver, 49-24. Peyton Manning, who barely played in the Week 17 encounter before being replaced by backup quarterback Jim Sorgi, had 360 passing yards and three touchdowns at halftime as the Colts took a 35-3 lead.
"That [Week 17] game Denver had to win and we didn't, that was a big advantage for us," ex-Colts coach Tony Dungy said Friday in a telephone interview. "We could hide some things and not show everything."
As for the NFC, the playoff picture will become clearer after Minnesota (11-4) hosts the New York Giants in an early game. If the Vikings win, Arizona (10-5) has no shot at a first-round bye. Combined with a strong possibility of a first-round rematch with Green Bay, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt has acknowledged how the Vikings fare will determine his approach toward the Packers game. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy also could be yanking starters and watering down his play-calling because of a potential rematch and the fact his team is already locked into a wild-card slot.
"You have to be smart in this game and make sure you err on the side of having a healthy team heading into the playoffs," Whisenhunt said.
The only potential rematch game that will definitely be played in earnest Sunday is Philadelphia vs. Dallas. The winner captures the NFC East crown. Dallas (10-5) would get a first-round home game, while Philadelphia (11-4) would score the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed and first-round bye. The Eagles and Cowboys would have a first-round rematch if Dallas, Minnesota and Green Bay win Sunday.
"This is a game we have to approach just like we've approached all the others, but there is a lot more on the line," Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb told Eagles media. "Playing against the Cowboys twice a year, they have an understanding of what we like to do. We know what they like to do. It's just two teams clashing to try to achieve that common goal."
Every other playoff contender is chasing the same goal, too. It's just that some may take a different road than others trying to reach Super Bowl because of rematch possibilities.