In a week that saw plenty of Curtis Painter and Brian Hoyer, Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy shook the dice on a potential severe injury to any of his key players and let his starters play a majority of the game in the Packers' 33-7 rout of the Arizona Cardinals.
Starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers played into the second half, as did most of the defense. With the exception of what appears to be a minor injury to Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson, the team escaped today's game free of any severe injuries to key players.
Why would McCarthy take such a risk? One word: momentum. McCarthy understands that momentum is everything going into the playoffs, perhaps even more than where your team is seeded. McCarthy would know this better than most as his Packers lost a heartbreaker in the NFC Championship two years ago to a red-hot New York Giants team that went on to win Super Bowl XLII.
While McCarthy was indeed playing with fire, it was a move that could ultimately end up paying off in a big way. Take a look back at what happened to the Indianapolis Colts in 2005. They rested their starters the final week and got knocked out of the playoffs by a Steelers team that had played its starters in all regular season games. The Colts tried it the other way the following season and won Super Bowl XLI.
Another important factor in McCarthy's decision that should not be overlooked is that he has the youngest team in the NFL. Despite the team's success this season, the more experience this group can get the better off they will be. This is especially true for an offensive line that struggled early this year but has since made strides in keeping Rodgers upright.
When teams lock up home field advantage or a first round bye, some people view the extra rest as a reward for players' performances during the regular season. McCarthy doesn't subscribe to that theory. What McCarthy likely did tell his squad was that while making the playoffs is a significant milestone, no rings or trophies are given just for making the tournament.
McCarthy probably wanted to remind his players of the difficult journey ahead in that they still have four more games of increasing difficulty to win, and that they should not be happy until they are hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Miami.
With most of the NFC struggling, the Packers really can think "why not us?" and do so with a straight face. The Packers are the hottest team in the conference right now. Look at the rest of the NFC field.
Philadelphia looked putrid with the NFC East on the line, the Packers took it to the Cardinals' starters early in the game, the Vikings lost two in a row before handily beating a Giants team that looked like it packed it in, the Saints have lost three in a row, and the Packers already beat the Cowboys (albeit a potential second matchup would be in Dallas where the Packers have struggled).
Combine that along with the fact that McCarthy chose momentum over rest and the Packers are arguably in much better shape than the 2007 squad was to make a title run, and the '07 Packers even had a first round bye. That season, McCarthy chose to pull Brett Favre and other starters right before halftime. The result in the divisional round? The Packers fell behind 14-0 early before rallying for a 42-20 win.
When you also consider that the past four Super Bowls have featured at least one team that played a game on wild card weekend, then history favors the Packers as well. Then again, it also favors the other three teams playing that weekend as well.
It has been an exciting season so far for Cheeseheads, and thanks to McCarthy's gamble it has the potential to be even more thrilling.
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