Who knew that the New Orleans Saints would be sitting in the NFC driver’s seat this year with a 13-0 record? The Saints, after going 8-8 last year, really are the surprise story of the year in pro football. And not only are they good on paper, the Saints are really fun to watch. If you saw that Monday night 38-17 beat down of the Patriots, you know what I am talking about – lights out, exciting football at its best. The Saints have clinched the NFC South and are looking to stay at home throughout the playoffs
And, of course, what’s not surprising is that the Indianapolis Colts are looking for an undefeated season as well behind the always brilliant Payton Manning. Watching the Colts beat the miserable Broncos last weekend, I realized that even when the Colts play absolutely poor football, they are still good. With that win against the Broncos, the Colts have won the AFC South and now have home field advantage for the playoffs.
Both teams are good and have achieved what was necessary up until this point in the season: Get into the playoffs. Now, the question for both teams’ coaches is how to finish out the final three games of the season. Do they keep playing their starters and strive to remain undefeated but risk injuries before the playoffs? Or do the coaches rest their starters and make sure they are healthy for the playoffs but risk going into the post season cold?
You know what the ‘72 Dolphins are thinking. Bench Drew Brees. Bench Manning. Bench anyone that has a constant positive impact on the team because you will need them for the playoffs. And hopefully between now and the beginning of the playoffs, both teams will lose and the old-timer Dolphins can break out the iced Champagne once again.
But resting a team’s best players (Manning, Brees) and basically coasting through the final three games into the playoffs is the worst, I mean, the absolute worst idea. Teams must continue to strive for excellence for an entire season to win in the playoffs. A cold team in the playoffs is a worthless team – and ultimately makes for a worthless season.
The Broncos 2003 season is a perfect example of this. The Broncos won their first four games of the season with their new quarterback, Jake Plummer. Throughout the season the Broncos became pretty banged up with injuries. After securing the wildcard berth, Denver coach Mike Shanahan decided to bench a lot of his starters in the last game of the year against the Packers – a worthless game really. As it turned out though, benching the players was not such a good idea because they ended up losing to Green Bay 31-3 and followed by a 41-10 blowout loss to the Colts in the first round of the playoffs. Shanahan’s cold team was undoubtedly humiliated as the defense was confused, dull and frankly, worthless. Denver allowed 31 points in the first half and 479 total yards.
I watched that game in complete frustration. Yes, Denver’s team was healthy for that playoff game but they were so, so cold. Resting those top players didn’t keep them in top playing form and it hurt. (This loss stuck in my mind as one of Shanahan’s biggest coaching mishaps.) What that Green Bay game did was take away the team’s newly-found momentum – and momentum going into the playoffs is priceless.
So here stand the Saints, who are as hot as hot can be, with three games left against the Cowboys (can’t win a game in December), Bucs (only one win under the belt) and the Panthers (5-8 record, just not good). If I were Saints Head Coach Sean Payton, I’d think first, we are looking to go undefeated this season and second, we are going to win the Super Bowl. It takes excellence to do both. Every starter is going to play every play the rest of the season. If somebody gets hurt, make adjustments when the time is needed. I also believe a team that is just coasting through the rest of the season is more prone to getting its players injured rather than going at it 110 percent.
And I would say the same for Payton and the Colts. No rest for the wicked. If they want to win the Super Bowl, they must play for an undefeated season. They face the Jaguars (in the wildcard hunt and will be playing for blood), Jets (kind of in the playoff hunt) and the Bills (terrible).
If the coaches of these two teams heed my advice, this could be a great postseason of football coming up and, ultimately, there could be only one undefeated team this year. While I would feel just a small bit of sadness for the ’72 Dolphins if it happens, I would love to see a Super Bowl of two undefeated teams. (And, of course, that’s only if the Broncos don’t make it.)