2010 NFL Schedule: Why the New Week 17 Strategy Won't Work

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2010 NFL Schedule: Why the New Week 17 Strategy Won't Work
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The biggest surprise of the 2010 NFL schedule isn’t the Dallas Cowboys finally facing a primetime quality opponent on Thanksgiving Day.

But that’s close.

It’s actually that the final weekend of the regular season will feature all divisional matchups.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had expressed concern last year about playoff teams “tanking” games at the end of the season by resting their players for the postseason, according to ESPN.com.

“We have a responsibility to our fans to put the highest-quality product out on the field,” Goodell told ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning.

The Indianapolis Colts, who began the season 14-0, were supposedly guilty of so-called tanking the final six quarters of their regular season.

But the Colts weren’t the only team that caused a stir late in the 2009 campaign. The New York Jets did too, but for a far different reason.

New York made it to the playoffs by beating the aforementioned Colts and Cincinnati Bengals in the last two weeks of 2009, two playoff teams who had nothing to play for at the time.

Subsequently, New York kicked the Houston Texans from a wild-card slot, a club who lost twice to their division-rival Colts. The “real” Colts, that is.  Not the team quarterbacked by Curtis Painter.

Too bad, Houston. Being swept by Jacksonville really came back to bite you.

Goodell implemented a Week 17 full of divisional games in hopes that all teams will “play to win” on that final Sunday.

But will it work?

Well, in one way, it should. More divisional games at the end of the season means that division titles and such should be up for grabs later than usual. That’s good.

But will teams who have already clinched their postseason positioning play their starters in Week 17 just because they’re facing a division rival?

Doubt it.

For the sake of this article, let’s fast forward to January 2, 2011.

Here are two hypothetical situations.

The Cowboys (11-4) have clinched the NFC’s No. 2 seed in the playoffs. The Philadelphia Eagles (8-7) need to win to secure a wild card. Will Dallas honestly play its starters and therefore risk injury just to keep Kevin Kolb and the new-look Eagles out of the postseason?

The San Diego Chargers (10-5) have already secured the AFC’s No. 3 playoff seed. With virtually nothing at stake, would they play their starters against a Denver Broncos team (7-8) that's already out of the postseason mix?

Obviously, we don’t know for sure. But history indicates teams who have “nothing to play for” will still rest their starters against divisional foes.

Last year, the Saints did it during their Week 17 bout with the Carolina Panthers. Both Tennessee and Indianapolis played “light” against each other in the 2008 finale. In Week 17 of the previous year, the clinched-up Colts allowed the Titans to stroll into the AFC’s final playoff spot.

Also in Week 17 of 2007, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were “soft” against Carolina, and the Washington Redskins secured a postseason spot with a victory over the Cowboys.

Rumor had it that Tony Romo had already booked his trip to Cabo three days before that game...

So there you have it. A playoff-secured team won’t necessarily play tough against a divisional foe. That’s been proven true, year after year...after year.

A few months ago, the NFL contemplated fighting the issue by potentially rewarding an additional draft pick to a team playing its starters and winning a game it did not need to win.

Excuse me?

So last year, the Colts would have played Peyton Manning in a Week 17 snowstorm at Buffalo, potentially jeopardizing their Super Bowl chances in 2009, so they could get an extra pick in the 2010 draft?

What?

OK, the NFL’s Week 17 strategy makes a lot more sense. However, it probably won’t keep teams from resting players if they so choose.

"If this doesn't have the kind of impact we want, we're going to find three or four other things to try to have the same kind of outcome, but it is a difficult issue," said Goodell.

Hopefully, Goodell won’t rush to conclusions. But it wouldn’t be too surprising to see him empty out his bag of tricks in an attempt to solve this one.

Every individual NFL season is unique and entirely unpredictable. That’s part of what makes the sport so great. Honestly, it’ll take years before we know if this new Week 17 strategy has entirely succeeded. We won’t know at the end of 2010.

But most likely, it won’t work anyway.

The only way to completely “fix the problem” would be for the league to require every team to play its starters for the duration of every regular season game, regardless of the game’s significance (or lack thereof).

But such an implementation could get hairy, as teams would perhaps try to find loopholes in the rule by putting healthy starters on IR in an attempt to “protect” them.

Therefore, one can only hope that the league will never ever get its hands that involved in a team’s gameday decisions.

If Peyton Manning sits out a meaningless Week 17 game, then so be it. At least the integrity of the game will be saved.

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