For a team that has already clinched a spot in the NFL playoffs, it is worth it to play top stars and risk injury in order to try to lock up a first-round bye or home-field advantage?
The Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers are guaranteed to be playing after Week 17 concludes. Not one of those seven teams has clinched a first-round bye or home-field advantage yet, but that could come this Sunday.
Although it may be worth it to try and not to have to play in the Wild Card playoffs, a major injury during the final weeks of the regular season could ruin an entire playoff run for a Super Bowl contender.
Even though it’s only Week 16, here are some players who should be playing minimal minutes in order to stay healthy and gear up for the postseason.
The Houston Texans are in the driver’s seat going into the Week 16 as the AFC’s No. 1 team. They don’t need to win in order to clinch a first-round bye. Houston can do that by having New England lose or tie on Sunday, or having Denver lose. If Houston does win, it clinches home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
That being said, there’s no need to have Arian Foster on the field very much on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. Foster is having a great year with 1,313 yards and 14 touchdowns on 325 carries, but has been listed on the injury report with knee and hamstring issues this season.
The last thing that Houston needs heading into the postseason is to have to sit Foster in its first playoff game with a pulled hamstring or a sprained knee. Even without Foster on the field for most of the game, the Texans should be able to stop Adrian Peterson on the ground, have Matt Schuab pass for 300-plus yards and defeat the Vikings. Justin Forsett and Ben Tate should be able to carry the load just fine.
The Atlanta Falcons take on the Detroit Lions on Saturday night with the hopes of locking up either a first-round bye or home-field advantage, or both. They can do both with a victory, but they should do it without Matt Ryan on the field.
Ryan has been the only quarterback that Atlanta has used this season, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns, but the plays on Saturday should be run by Luke McCown.
The Lions are one of the worst teams in the NFL with a 4-10 record going into Week 16, and McCown shouldn’t have any issues defeating them as long as Michael Turner has a solid game on the ground. McCown will still be throwing to two prolific receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones as well, making the case for Ryan to sit even stronger.
Detroit allows an average of 27.1 points per game, and even with McCown under center that seems like a number the Falcons could hit to clinch home-field advantage.
The Cleveland Browns have an interesting young team, but the Denver Broncos are far superior and that’s shown in their 11-3 record this season. Outside of one incomplete pass from punter Matt Prater, Peyton Manning has thrown every ball for the Broncos this season.
Coming off of neck surgery that prevented him from playing all of last season while still with the Indianapolis Colts, he has shown he is still one of the best quarterbacks to ever to play the game. He’s thrown for over 4,000 yards this year along with 31 touchdowns.
As a precautionary measure, he shouldn’t play very many minutes on Sunday. The last thing the Broncos need is to have Jabaal Sheard or Juqua Parker sack Manning, have him tweak something in his neck and not be able to go when it really matters in a few weeks.
Even with Manning on the sidelines, there’s almost no chance the Browns shock Denver. This should be an easy Broncos win no matter who’s taking the snaps.
Tom Brady has managed to stay healthy for the entire season. He hasn’t missed a game or even shown up on New England’s injury report. The Patriots don’t need Brady, though, to take down the 2-12 Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. Ryan Mallett is more than capable of doing that.
New England cannot lock up a first-round bye or home-field advantage this week, but the Patriots can’t make things more difficult for other teams with the victory over the Jaguars.
Stevan Ridley has already run for 1,000-plus yards, and the strong receiving corps that includes Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd can still catch balls from quarterbacks not named Tom Brady. The Jaguars defense is not one of the league’s best by any means and the Patriots should win this game by a wide margin.
If I’m Bill Belichick, I’m having Brady play two series and then putting Mallett in to close it out. I’m not risking losing Brady for the playoffs.
The New York Giants are still fighting to clinch a spot in the playoffs and the Baltimore Ravens have yet to lock up the AFC North, although they’ve already clinched a playoff berth. This could be a close game and it’s definitely one that both teams would like to win—but there’s certainly more pressure on the Giants.
Ray Lewis has been one of the best linebackers in football over the course of his career, but torn triceps have kept him out of action since Week 6 against the Dallas Cowboys. Lewis has been practicing with the team lately, but has not been taken off of the injured reserve lift—although the Ravens have the ability to do so.
If Lewis is ready to go on Sunday, there’s no reason for him to play full-time or play at 100 percent intensity. He’s coming back very early from a serious injury and should not risk further damage. The Ravens may have lost their last three games, but the defense has been functioning relatively well during Lewis’ absence.
Head coach John Harbaugh should look to get Lewis’ feet wet against the Giants, but that’s all.