Week 17 preview: Don't worry about rust

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Kevin Hench

An accomplished film and television writer, Kevin Hench's latest screenwriting credit is for The Hammer, which stars Adam Carolla. His podcast, Spider and the Henchman, is available every Friday on iTunes. MORE>>
Rust never sleeps.

It may be a legitimate concern for bridge builders but as a rationale for not resting star players in meaningless regular-season games before the playoffs, it doesn’t hold water.

If rust is such a potential bogeyman, how come no one complains when stars sit out the final preseason game? Your timing can’t possibly be as locked in at the end of August as it is at the end of December, and yet nobody squawks when Brian Hoyer goes the distance in New England’s final preseason game.

As ever, half the teams will lose on wild card weekend. The following week one or more teams that had byes might lose too. Invariably, one or more of the losers will have rested starters in Week 17 and the usual loud idiots will inveigh, “Ya see, they lost their rhythm.”

Of course they did. Despite six months of immersion in the game, it was that 60 minutes on the sideline on the final Sunday that oxidized them into a brittle, disintegrating shell of their former selves.

The idea that after an entire season of precision Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne could have their telepathic connection disrupted by a week off is comical on its face.

Like everyone else, I watched last week as a bunch of ex-players-turned-analysts acted as if they’d just witnessed the Black Sox scandal after Jim Caldwell wisely sat his stars in the second half against the Jets.

Could winning that game — or this Sunday’s in Buffalo — in any way help the Colts’ chances of winning a Super Bowl? No.

Could maintaining a perfect record into the playoffs possibly hurt a team’s chances of winning it all? Ask Patriots fans.

But the bigger concern is could Manning break his thumb on an O-lineman’s helmet on his follow through? Could Wayne get his shoulder separated colliding with a safety? No matter how slim the odds of injury, Manning and Wayne are safer on the sideline.

The only argument against resting guys when your position is clinched — and I think it’s a valid one — is putting your best product on the field for the paying fans. No offense, Curtis Painter, but for some fans in Lucas Oil Stadium last week that was the only Colts game they’ll ever attend.

When you’re charging NFL prices, there is a producer-consumer obligation of service. No one wants to buy U2 tickets and show up to find Taylor Hicks fronting the band.

But it’s kind of understood that the greater obligation of an NFL organization to its fan base is to do whatever it believes it needs to do to provide the best shot at a title. Sure, some fans will be disappointed to see backups — they charge the same prices when the scrubs start — but most fans keep their eyes on the big prize. (Patriots fans got greedy, wanted it all, and ended up with what sure must have felt like nothing.)

Of course only contenders face this dilemma. If you’re 4-11, you better make damn sure your best team is on the field or risk further alienating an already bummed-out fan base.

So what will the contenders do in Week 17? Caldwell has already tipped his hand with his Week 16 decision. Bill Belichick, for whom winning could mean the difference between the 3 and 4 seed, has already told Tom Brady he will play.

Somebody who sits this week — Drew Brees? Philip Rivers? — could very well lose his first playoff game.

It just won’t have anything to do with rust.

Hottest Hot Seat

Given that the switch on the Old Sparky he’s been sitting on all season is about to be thrown, I guess we can bring poor Jim Zorn back to the hottest hot seat one final time.

In an inglorious finishing kick, Zorn has suffered one remarkable indignity — having his assistant Jerry Gray interview for his job — and been at the center of one of the most embarrassing coaching sequences in league history (see: fake FG Hail Mary that wasn’t a fake).

Irony alert: While Zorn is getting canned, his former kicker Shaun Suisham will be preparing for the playoffs as the Cowboys kicker.

Worst Week of Sleep Leading Up to Kickoff

Poor Derrick Mason. There are several NFL receivers who have become defined by their unconscionable drops (Terrell Owens, Braylon Edwards, Roy E. Williams). Mason is not one of them.

But Ol’ Reliable may have doomed the Ravens when he let a perfect, breadbasket-bound toss from Joe Flacco hit him in the facemask and elude his sure hands. The end zone drop allowed the Steelers to squeak out a 23-20 victory and left Baltimore needing a win at Oakland to get into the playoffs.

Seems like an easy enough task. Until you consider what the Raiders have done in their last three games against teams in playoff contention, beating the Bengals, Steelers and Broncos.

Mason, who has been playing hurt for much of the season, will have a particularly uncomfortable flight back from the West Coast if it turns out his Week 16 drop cost the Ravens a shot at a title.

The Week in Favre

Peyton Manning probably sewed up the MVP by sitting on the sidelines as the Colts fell apart last week (a pretty emphatic example of his value). But Brett Favre sure made a case for the Ol’ Gunslinger in the second half against Chicago Monday night.

After being held to 35 yards passing as the Vikes were held scoreless in the first half, Favre threw for 286 yards as Minny put up 30 points in the second half. His fourth-down laser to a leaping Sidney Rice to force OT was yet another moment of ageless wonder for Favre.

When the season started, Favre wasn’t doing a heck of a lot as Adrian Peterson and the Vikings defense dominated. But heading into the playoffs, with the D banged up and Peterson appearing all too human, it’s clear the Vikes will only go as far as Favre carries them.

The MVP Who Won’t Receive Any MVP Votes

The MVP conversation has revolved around Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Brett Favre ever since Favre jammed himself into the discussion in October. Chris Johnson has probably forced his way into the debate with his ridiculous season (5.8 ypc on his to 2,000 yards).

But one player who has been absolutely indispensable to his team without getting any MVP love is the amazing Wes Welker.

Welker leads the league (by 21 over Brandon Marshall) with 122 receptions despite missing two games. Had he not missed those games he would almost certainly be on the verge of breaking Marvin Harrison’s single-season reception record (143).

In the two games he missed, which the Pats split, New England scored only two offensive touchdowns. Welker has had double-digit catches in an astounding seven games. In those seven games, the Patriots have averaged 32.3 points per game.

Where the Bad Call Bar Is Set

Only two people in the stadium could possibly have known that Brandon Stokley’s fingertips made contact with the fingertips of back judge Todd Prukop as Stokley waved in disgust after Prukop missed an obvious pass interference call.

And Prukop should have kept it to himself. Dropping the 15-yard hanky on Stokley for having the temerity to point out the shoddiness of Prukop’s work was enough. To eject Stokley for brushing electrons with him was ridiculous. The Broncos ended up losing the game by three points and probably had their playoff hopes dashed.

Here’s hoping Stokley at least dropped the great Sgt. Dignam line from The Departed on Prukop. “I’m the guy doing his job. You must be the other guy.”

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