Two years ago the Indianapolis Colts had a chance to become the first 19-0 team in NFL history, but they pulled several key starters, including quarterback Peyton Manning, during the second-to-last game of the regular season.
The Colts lost the game, finished 14-2 and bowed to the New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl, leaving a sour taste that still lingers.
Colts President Bill Polian and coach Jim Caldwell fell back on the excuse that they wanted to rest their starters for the playoffs and guard against unnecessary injuries, but the decision to throw in the towel seemed all wrong.
How can you tell your players throughout the season that it’s all about winning and selling out for the team, but then casually give up the chance for perfection?
Assuming the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Packers General Manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy will face the same sticky situation as the 2009 Colts. The Packers would be 14-0 heading into their final two home games against Chicago and Detroit with the opportunity to post the NFL’s first 19-0 record and become only the second team in league annals to march through an entire season unbeaten.
On one hand, winning a championship should be the top priority, and the risk of exposing starters to injuries in meaningless late-season games must be carefully considered.
But since when did playing scared become acceptable in the NFL?
All too often teams attempting to coast into the playoffs lose their edge and get burned.
The Packers need to keep their foot on the gas pedal and finish the regular season with a flourish, not a whimper.
While the chance for injury always exists, there is also a risk in giving starters too much rest.
After facing the Chiefs, the Packers won’t play another meaningful game until the middle of January, a span of four weeks. The benefit of rest could be superseded by players getting rusty and flat.
The Packers need to enter the playoffs with a full head of steam, which is best accomplished by playing to win against the Bears and Lions.
The naysayers will no doubt obsess on injuries. “What if Aaron Rodgers is lost for the season in an insignificant game against the Bears?” they will say.
No. 1, no Bears game is insignificant. No. 2, based on that logic, why bother getting out of bed in the morning because something bad might happen?
Thompson and McCarthy will face criticism if they decide to try to win all 16 regular-season games and a key player goes down with an injury in the process.
Some fans are already angry because receiver Greg Jennings got hurt on Sunday and in their minds shouldn’t have been playing in the third quarter of a lopsided win over the Oakland Raiders.
The Packers’ brain trust can’t worry about the second-guessers and Monday morning quarterbacks. McCarthy needs to be able to look his players in the eye and have no regrets.
New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin held nothing back during a “meaningless” 2007 regular-season finale against the then-unbeaten New England Patriots. Although they narrowly lost, the Giants gained enough confidence to use as a springboard toward a Super Bowl championship.
Bears coach Lovie Smith, whose team had nothing to gain, went “all-in” during last year’s regular-season finale against the Packers. The Bears narrowly lost but Smith gained widespread respect from his players and NFL fans who appreciate an honest day’s work.
So far McCarthy hasn’t revealed the Packers’ late-season plans, but there are hopeful signs the team will not take a passive approach.
“I think I can speak for coach in that he’s going to try to go for this thing,” defensive lineman B.J. Raji told ESPN.com after the Raiders game.
“You don’t win a Super Bowl by being scared. You just play. That’s the message (McCarthy) is preaching. Just play the game because … that’s the way you’re supposed to play it.”
The Packers have the chance to accomplish something no other team in the history of professional football has done.
Why would Thompson and McCarthy choose to throw away such a rare opportunity, and settle for anything less than perfection?
Here’s hoping the Packers make a much better, more noble decision than the Colts. Here’s hoping they do the right thing.
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