The Carolina Panthers locked up a first-round bye in the playoffs on Sunday by beating their NFC South rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, in dominant fashion, 38-0.
The Panthers had already clinched the division last week, and with their Week 14 win, they’re now just two games away from locking up home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
The Panthers seem on track to do that. Over their final three games, they play the Giants, Falcons, and Bucs — three teams with a combined record of 17-21.
Prior to the season, nobody thought this Panthers team was capable of a perfect year, and while they have avoided some of the best teams in the NFL, it’s impressive nonetheless. It’s now fair to say a perfect 16-0 regular season is up for grabs, a feat that’s only been accomplished by the 2007 New England Patriots.
However, three weeks away from the playoffs, the Panthers now face a huge decision: chase the perfect season or rest players to ensure a healthy postseason.
It’s not an easy decision to make. Players are competitive, and there’s a historical shine to going undefeated, much more than a great, but not memorable 14-2 season. However, with a first-round bye already locked up, there’s undeniable logic to resting the team and ensuring the Panthers’ top players are healthy in January.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera sounded perplexed by the decision when SI’s Peter King asked him about it.
“I really don’t know what we are going to do if we are faced with that. All along I have told our guys we are taking each week one at a time. But if we get to that point, then I will have a decision to make. It obviously isn’t an easy decision.”
Rivera also noted that the strategy once came back to bite him:
“I remember back in 2005 when I was on coach [Lovie] Smith’s staff in Chicago and we had a bye going into the playoffs. We rested guys at the end, and we lost our first game to Carolina. After that game I think some of the guys on our team felt that maybe they were a little rusty because they had sat out. I have always thought about that.”
Rust is certainly a worry for teams that rest players, with the possibility that with more than a week off, they could lose their edge.
However, as King notes, in Sunday’s win over the Falcons, tight end Greg Olsen tweaked his knee and was checked out by trainers, but was fine. Running back Jonathan Stewart left the game with a sore foot, but is also expected to be fine. Fortunes can change in an instant, at unexpected times — ask the Packers, who lost top receiver Jordy Nelson in the preseason when he tore his ACL on a regular pass route.
The Panthers say they’re going to take things week by week and make the best decision about whether to play or rest players. As King also notes, teams basically have to go all-in if they rest players — you don’t want to put Cam Newton behind a replacement offensive line, for instance.
It will be one of the top storylines for the next three weeks. The Panthers could make history, particularly with a favourable schedule, but with so few instances of this kind of scenario, it will be interesting to see whether extra rest really does benefit a team, or if teams think it can throw them off course.
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