Colts’ de­ci­sion last year prompted change to in­tra-di­vi­sion games

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY MARK MASKE maskem@wash­

Is Week 17 im­proved? In an at­tempt to spice up the fi­nal week of the sea­son, the NFL goes to all di­vi­sion ri­valry games.

In­di­anapo­lis Colts Coach Jim Cald­well helped set Sun­day’s Week 17 NFL sched­ule more than a year ago, when he rested his front-line play­ers for the play­offs in­stead of chas­ing an un­beaten record.

League of­fi­cials scram­bled to de­vise a strat­egy that would keep end-of-the-reg­u­lar-sea­son games with­out play­off im­pli­ca­tions ap­peal­ing to fans. In­stead of a di­rec­tive that all starters must play, they de­cided to add some fla­vor to the fi­nal week­end by fea­tur­ing 16 in­tra-di­vi­sion matchups.

When the teams take the field Sun­day, a ma­jor­ity of the games could af­fect post­sea­son berths or seed­ing. The oth­ers will rely on ri­val­ries to keep fans in­ter­ested.

“I do think this has the best chance of work­ing,” New York Giants co-owner JohnMara said late last week. “You can’t force teams to play cer­tain peo­ple. If you play di­vi­sion games, you mo­ti­vate peo­ple to play their starters as much as you can, I think. Peo­ple want to win those games. They don’t al­ways like the other team too much, and maybe they don’t want to see that team make the play­offs.”

Said At­lanta Fal­cons Pres­i­dent Rich McKay, the co-chair­man of the NFL’s com­pe­ti­tion com­mit­tee: “ The teams like it. I think it does drive fan in­ter­est. I would be sur­prised if the re­ac­tion is not ex­tremely pos­i­tive when we poll the clubs af­ter the sea­son.”

The Colts were 14-0 last sea­son when Cald­well pulled quar­ter­back Pey­ton Man­ning and other starters from what be­came a loss to the New York Jets. Cald­well said his goal was to give his team the best chance to win in the post­sea­son, not to go un­de­feated. The Colts reached the Su­per Bowl but lost to theNewOr­leans Saints.

Cald­well’s move sparked a de­bate across the NFL and among fans about how to en­tice teams to do their best in such games— and put on a com­pelling show for ticket buy­ers and tele­vi­sion view­ers. There was lit­tle sup­port for or­der­ing teams to play their starters. One pos­si­bil­ity was re­ward­ing a team with an ad­di­tional draft choice for play­ing its starters af­ter its play­off spot was se­cured, but that idea has gone nowhere.

“If you’re in that po­si­tion and you think you have a chance to make a run for it all, I don’t think a draft pick is go­ing to change your mind about what you’re go­ing to do any­way,” said Mara, a mem­ber of the com­pe­ti­tion com­mit­tee. “It cer­tainly worked for us play­ing our reg­u­lars at the end of the sea­son. But I think most peo­ple feel like they’d rather sit peo­ple out and make sure they’re healthy for the play­offs.”

McKay said he would like to see re­con­sid­er­a­tion of a re-seed­ing pro­posal. That would al­low a wild-card play­off team with a su­pe­rior record to a di­vi­sion-win­ning team to se­cure a higher play­off seed and host at least a firstround game.

That could be an­other way to have more at stake in late-sea­son games. This year, for ex­am­ple, it would give a wild-card team a home game against the win­ner of the NFCWest, ei­ther Seat­tle or St. Louis.

But many fran­chise own­ers want teams re­warded with home games for win­ning their di­vi­sions, as in the cur­rent ar­range­ment.

For now, McKay said, there’s noth­ing more the league can do on the is­sue.

“A team might be sit­ting there with its seed­ing locked in, and its star run­ning back has an an­kle prob­lem,” McKay said. “Do we want to say un­der those cir­cum­stances that the guy should play? It’s just hard to reg­u­late it be­cause ev­ery cir­cum­stance is dif­fer­ent.”

In 2007, the Giants played their front-line play­ers in the reg­u­lar sea­son fi­nale against the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots. The game had no ef­fect on the Giants’ post­sea­son seed­ing, but the Pa­tri­ots were seek­ing the first 16-0 reg­u­lar sea­son in NFL his­tory. The Pa­tri­ots won, but the Giants played well and used the mo­men­tum from that per­for­mance to pro­pel them­selves on a play­off run that cul­mi­nated with a Su­per Bowl up­set of the Pa­tri­ots.

This sea­son’s Pa­tri­ots al­ready have clinched the top seed in the AFC play­offs en­ter­ing Sun­day’s reg­u­lar sea­son fi­nale against the Mi­ami Dol­phins. But Dol­phins Coach Tony Sparano said dur­ing the week he ex­pects to get the Pa­tri­ots’ best shot, starter­san­dall.

“Most teams go­ing into the play­offs the­way they’re go­ing into the play­offs want to be as hot as they can be,” Sparano said on a con­fer­ence call with re­porters.

How­ever, the Pa­tri­ots lost wide re­ceiverWesWelker last sea­son to a knee in­jury suf­fered in the reg­u­lar sea­son fi­nale a week be­fore a lop­sided first-round play­off loss to the Bal­ti­more Ravens.

“I think we just ap­proach each game­for what it is and­don’t re­ally worry about the stand­ings and the records and all that,” Pa­tri­ots Coach Bill Belichick said at a news con­fer­ence last week.

This year, five of the six play­off berths in the AFC are set­tled, but the Colts are still at­tempt­ing to wrap up the AFC South and reach the post­sea­son. The Pitts­burgh Steel­ers have a play­off spot se­cured but are try­ing to clinch the AFC North and the con­fer­ence’s sec­ond seed, which would give them a first-round bye.

Two play­off spots are up for grabs in the NFC, with the win­ner of the St. Louis-Seat­tle game get­ting the NFC West ti­tle and the Green Bay Pack­ers, Giants and Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers vy­ing for a sin­gle wild-card spot. The Fal­cons need to beat the Carolina Pan­thers to clinch the NFC’s top seed.

The Philadel­phia Ea­gles are locked into the third seed in the NFC and are ex­pected to rest quar­ter­back­Michael Vick in Sun­day’s game against the Dal­las Cow­boys. The Chicago Bears have at least the sec­ond seed and might know by the time they take the field for a 4:15 p.m. ET game at Green Bay if they still have a chance at the top seed. The Giants and Buc­ca­neers can only hope the Bears want to beat the ri­val Pack­ers, even if Chicago no longer can help its play­off po­si­tion­ing.

“I think this is about the best thing we could have done,” Mara said of the new sched­ul­ing for­mat. “I cer­tainly hope it works this week­end with Green Bay and Chicago, ob­vi­ously.”

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