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Resting Starters for the NFL Playoffs, Does It Matter?

The Indianapolis Colts are locked into the fifth seed entering this week’s game against Houston, and the result will not impact their draw in the first round. Depending on how you view it, a win could actually make for a tougher draw (if Indianapolis would prefer not to set up a potential divisional round matchup against Peyton Manning).

Still, the Colts are going to go full bore in their final game, to try to knock off the Houston Texans and prevent them from getting the #1 seed. It’s Chuck Pagano’s first week back, and it would feel inappropriate to basically roll over after a season where the Colts played the plucky underdog role and won many games they probably had little business winning. It is also a very young team, and one that needs to continue to get better and could probably use the reps against a playoff caliber team trying to win.

In the past, we have seen this same franchise, under the previous Polian regime, take a very different approach with resting Peyton Manning and other stars in the final game. Which approach works best?

It’s hard to define when someone is “resting starters” because all teams, to some extent, will remove a player when the leverage of the situation is minimized. We see this at the end of blowouts, and we often see teams that are set in the playoffs remove starters earlier as the final game progresses. There are different levels, from none of the stars playing at all (or maybe one series) to pulling key players out after reaching a point later in the game when the outcome does not matter.

To try to gauge the suspected “resters”, I looked at the point spreads in week 17 since 2002 to try to identify playoff teams that might be suspected of not giving it their all. From that, I pared down the list to those where the spread seemed off from what should have been expected based on the rest of the regular season. For example, last year, the 14-1 Packers were a 6.5 point underdog to the Detroit Lions at home in the final game. That line was out of line with the rest of the season because Aaron Rodgers was going to sit out and the Packers were locked into the #1 seed.

I identified 30 games since 2002 where a line involving a playoff team seemed move substantially. Those thirty teams went just 14-16 in their next (playoff) game, and 11-19 against the spread. That would certainly seem to indicate that these teams that were likely to have been resting starters did not play well as a group.

However, Vegas doesn’t always know what a team is going to do, and just because a line moved doesn’t mean the playoff team actually rested starters most of the game. When we look at the actual results of the week 17 game, and the distance from the spread, we see that both the tankers and those that played really well both struggled. The bottom ten teams (the worst being the Arizona Cardinals in 2009 losing at home to the Packers by 26) went 4-6 and 3-7 against the spread. So did those that played really well in the final game, despite line movement reflecting fear of resting starters.

The resting phenomenon is often subject to remembering the bad cases, but not the bad cases elsewhere, or the good cases who rested and then played well. Atlanta and New England in 2010 both won decisively in their finales; neither played well in the divisional round.

When we look at just those teams who earned a bye, there were 12 teams I labeled as suspected resters, based on both the spread entering the game and the result of the game. The resting teams went only 6-6 and 4-8 against the spread in the Divisional Round. The other teams with a bye went 19-9 (13-15 against the spread). As we can see, neither group covered the spread very well, so teams coming off the bye aren’t doing nearly as well as they used to before the schedule and format change in 2002. The resting teams have done worse, but we have a very limited sample size.

I think this is a case of believe what you want, and there is no real right answer across the board. For a veteran team with injuries, resting may be the way to go. For a young team like this year’s Colts, playing to win is likely worth the increased risk of injury that comes with having starters out there for one more game.

[photo via USA Today Sports Images]

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