What Does NFL History Say About Resting Starters Before the Playoffs?

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What Does NFL History Say About Resting Starters Before the Playoffs?
USA TODAY Sports

It's the final week of the long NFL season, and teams with nothing to gain, or lose, face the big question—whether or not to rest key starters.

To sit or not to sit.

Historically, teams that have rested starters for a game or two have had mixed results.

Some teams have rested starters and won two playoff games and earned a trip to the Super Bowl. Others—the 2011 Packers come to mind—rested starters and got crushed in the first round.

The Cincinnati Bengals have nothing to gain with a win today, but Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is not resting starters in today's matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, another team that has secured a playoff spot.

The Indianapolis Colts have locked up the AFC's No. 5 seed and a win will not improve their draw. They are playing their starters today against the Houston Texans, who are fighting to maintain the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

Two years ago the Atlanta Falcons went 13-3, earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC, yet lost to the Packers in the first round. On Sunday, the Falcons started quarterback Matt Ryan and wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones.

The Bengals' Lewis chose to rest players the last two times Cincy had nothing to gain on the final week of the regular season, in 2005 and 2009. The team lost both season finales—and lost their playoff opener. They lost by 14 to the Pittsburgh Steelers and by 10 to the New York Jets in 2005 and 2009, respectively.

Lewis, it seems, has learned his lesson.

"I think it's important for our team to play well. We are going to play to win the football game. [We're playing for] improvement. Each and every time we go out," Lewis told CBSSports.com this week.

The Bengals' opponent, the Ravens, are resting six starters, including three stars—linebackers Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis, and wideout Anquan Boldin.

The Ravens (10-5) have already earned the AFC North title and could secure the No. 3 seed with a win and a Patriots home loss to the Miami Dolphins, however unlikely that may be given Belichick never rests his starters.

During the Bill Belichick regime in New England, resting starters has been a non-issue. The almighty hooded one does not do it. 

And his teams, perhaps not so coincidentally, rarely lose in the first round of the playoffs.

In 2007, with home-field advantage locked up but a perfect season one win away, Belichick played his starters throughout. The Patriots won the season finale, securing the NFL's first 16-0 record, and ran the table to get to Super Bowl XLI.

Last year, the Ravens were still in contention for the No. 1 seed so the Patriots didn't have the option to rest starters.

"I think that's a conversation that you can have, and the fans can have, but it's not really part of our approach to the game," Belichick told Boston.com. "I don't think it's a good one to have. I don't really understand it either. You're going to pick out one guy that is important and say somebody else isn't? I don't think that's a good way to manage your football team."

The 2009 Indianapolis Colts raced to a 14-0 start and clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They rested their starters and lost the final two games only to win their two playoff games handily, and earn a spot representing the AFC in Super Bowl XLIV, which they lost to the New Orleans Saints.

Ironically, in 2006, with no chance to rest starters, the Colts earned their lone Super Bowl victory.
Last season, the Green Bay Packers rested quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the final game of the regular season after having secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

Resting Rodgers meant he would go three weeks without throwing a meaningful pass in an NFL game. In their playoff opener, the Packers were blown out by the New York Giants, who went on to win Super Bowl XLVI.

In 2004, the Philadelphia Eagles were 13-1 and rested starters the last two games. They lost those games, but made the Super Bowl anyway.

So, in the end, resting starters seems like a 50/50 proposition. You win some, you lose some. If any conclusion can be drawn it is that No. 1 seeds that rest starters can usually shake off the rust to beat a low-seeded team.

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