Atlanta Falcons: Why Falcons Shouldn't Rest Starters vs. Buccaneers

Justin BlanchardContributor IIDecember 23, 2012

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 22:  Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons reacts after a fourth quarter touchdown while playing the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on December 22, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Here we are, once again.

The Atlanta Falcons are coming off a Week 16 win which clinched them the NFC's No.1 seed.

It ensures them a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

It also leaves everybody wondering: Should the Falcons rest their starters in Week 17?

You could make a solid case for either answer.

Imagine the following scenario: Late in the fourth quarter in next Sunday's game versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Matt Ryan drops back to pass like he has countless other times in his career. He looks to his right, then looks to his left, but finds no one open. With the pocket collapsing before him, Ryan decides to pull the ball down and runs upfield. He makes it three yards before he is caught from behind by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who lands hard on Ryan's knee on the play.

Result: Ryan is out for the playoffs with an ACL injury.

"It's an unlikely scenario, but a potential one nonetheless," argue those in support of resting starters.

"But it's worth risking injury to maintain momentum," argue those against it.

So, who's right?

Recent history says the latter.

The last two times Mike Smith's Falcons were guaranteed a playoff spot, he rested his starters in the third quarter in blowout wins only for the Falcons to then be blown out themselves in their ensuing playoff game (24-2 by the New York Giants in 2011, 48-21 by the Green Bay Packers in 2010). In both those playoff games, the Falcons looked out of sync and unfocused.

Ironically, the one time Smith's starters played an entire Week 17 game resulted in his closest postseason result with the Falcons (30-24 loss to the Cardinals in 2008). No one was injured in that Week 17 game, and the Falcons went into the following week's contest looking determined and ready to play.

The phenomenon isn't unique to the Falcons.

Last year, with the NFC top seed and a bye week in hand, the Packers went on to sit Aaron Rodgers and key starters in their regular-season finale, effectively giving them two week's rest prior to their opening playoff game.

Green Bay lost that game in stunning fashion, with Rodgers unable to shake off the rust as he looked nothing like the league MVP he played like up to that point.

Meanwhile in the AFC, the New England Patriots, too, had the top seed and a bye week clinched entering Week 17. Yet, head coach Bill Belichick kept Brady and his starters in for all but the game's final drive.

It allowed Brady to stay on his toes, as he and the Patriots won their opening playoff game en route to appearing in Super Bowl XLV.

Of course, resting starters in the regular season doesn't necessarily wipe away a team's chance at the Super Bowl altogether—after all, the Indianapolis Colts rested their starters the last two games of the 2009 season and still reached the Super Bowl. They lost it to the New Orleans Saints, who equally rested their starters in their regular-season finale.

Yet,  considering that three of the past seven Super Bowl winners were in do-or-die situations in their respective regular-season finales (Pittsburgh Steelers in '05, Packers in '10, Giants in '11) and two more also played their starters throughout their own Week 17 games (Colts in '06, Giants in '07), it's clear that keeping late-season momentum is favorable to a deep playoff run. 

The Falcons have already kicked off their own late-season momentum coming off two impressive wins in a row in which their starters shined.

The last thing they should do is bring that momentum to an abrupt halt. If that means risking Ryan and other Falcons to injury—something they're at risk of any other week of the season—that's a risk I'm willing to take.