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Do playoff teams have an obligation to try?

Posted: Tuesday, December 28, 2004

On the final Sunday night of the 1988 season, Phil Simms sat in his New Jersey home watching the Los Angeles Rams thrash the San Francisco 49ers 38-16, putting the Rams into the playoffs and knocking Simms and the Giants out.

''I'm sitting here watching the 49ers lie down like dogs,'' Simms told a caller as the 49ers played ... well, like pooches, allowing Joe Montana to be sacked nine times.

That is the scenario that is developing for next weekend, the final one of the 2004 regular season. Even if teams that have clinched everything play regulars, how motivated will they be?

It applies especially to two games.

1. Indianapolis at Denver. The Colts are locked in as the third-seeded team in the AFC playoffs, and Peyton Manning has his record for touchdown passes in a season. If the Broncos win, they make the playoffs, but if the Colts play less than their best, are they being fair to the teams with whom Denver is competing - the Bills, Jaguars, Jets and Ravens?

Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy acknowledged Monday that he might take out starters at some point. That means, perhaps, that the Broncos will be going against Jim Sorgi rather than Peyton Manning.

''We'll play our first group and we'll see how it goes,'' Dungy said. ''There's a lot of factors involved in how much they'll play or how long. ... We want to continue to be sharp.''

2. Pittsburgh at Buffalo. The Steelers have clinched home-field in the AFC, have a bunch of injuries - Ben Roethlisberger hurt his ribs Sunday - and have nothing to play for. The Bills can make the playoffs if (see above) the Broncos lose and also could win a tiebreaker if the Jets should they lose in St. Louis.

In other words, what are the obligations of the Colts and Steelers? To ensure they are ready for the playoffs? Or to preserve the integrity of the playoff system by using their best players?

In most cases, it's the former - the ''Me First'' attitude.

On Sunday, Atlanta rested Michael Vick, Alge Crumpler and T.J. Duckett in New Orleans after it had locked itself into the second seed in the NFC. With rookie Matt Schaub at QB for the Falcons, the Saints won 26-13 and remained alive in the NFC playoff hunt at 7-8, a result that can impact the Panthers, Vikings and Rams.

All three players were hurt, but might have played if the game meant something.

And while coach Jim Mora was very displeased on Monday, he did talk about Schaub, who had a chance to get his first NFL action - always a positive with young quarterbacks.

Back when Simms was so miffed at the 49ers, the NFC dominated, and five teams in the conference finished 10-6. Two of them, the Giants and Saints, missed the playoffs.

When the 49ers played the Rams that Sunday night, they had clinched the NFC West and were the second-seeded team. They took the prudent approach and it worked - they went on to win the Super Bowl.

''It didn't cost us any more than just a game,'' said Montana, who a month later led a late drive capped by a 10-yard TD pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds left to beat Cincinnati for the title.

Momentum is one factor coaches consider.

In 1996, Denver was 12-1 when it clinched home-field advantage in the AFC with three games to go. It rested regulars, including John Elway and lost momentum - its first game after the clinching was a 41-6 loss in Green Bay.

The Broncos then lost their first playoff game - at home to Jacksonville, a second-year team that had lucked into the playoffs at 9-7 when Atlanta's Morten Andersen, who never missed in those days, missed a medium-range field goal.

The next season, Denver got in as a wild-card team ... and ended up winning the Super Bowl (just as those 1988 Giants won two years later, getting a measure of revenge by winning the NFC championship game in San Francisco.)

Some coaches play it straight - both to keep momentum and, presumably, to be fair.

''We are playing too well to go up there and not win that football game,'' Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said of next week's game in Buffalo.

''We don't want to go into the playoffs with that sour taste in your mouth,'' he added.

The sour taste San Francisco got translated into an NFL title.



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