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No obligation necessary: Coaches should rest their players

When it comes to finishing their regular-season schedule, coaches whose teams have already secured a playoff spot and can't significantly improve their postseason status should have only one concern: To give their squad the best possible chance of winning the Super Bowl.

If that means resting starters for some or all of their remaining regular-season games, so be it.

I don't buy the argument that a coach has an "obligation" to treat all games that count in the standings the same. The only obligation he has is to do what is best for his team.

There is no clearer example of that than doing whatever he can to help reduce the risk of injury to his starters before the playoffs begin.

And please don't hit me with the argument that this philosophy somehow undermines the "integrity" of the game. If anything, there is far greater integrity in making postseason success a greater priority than a regular-season win.

I have no problem with the Indianapolis Colts, who are locked into the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, taking a preseason-like approach to their season-finale against the Tennessee Titans, who need to win to capture a wild-card berth.

Is it fair to the Cleveland Browns, who would make the playoffs instead of the Titans if Tennessee loses? No. But the Browns could have kept control of their destiny by winning a game that they should have won against Cincinnati in Week 16.

I have no problem with the Dallas Cowboys, who have clinched home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs, taking a preseason-like approach to their season-finale against the Washington Redskins, who need to win to capture a wild-card berth.

Is it fair to the Minnesota Vikings, who would make the playoffs by beating Denver if the Redskins lose earlier in the day? No. But the Vikings should have taken care of business against Washington in Week 16. Is it fair to the New Orleans Saints, who would make the playoffs by beating Chicago as long as the Redskins and Vikings lose? No. But the Saints, who have been one of the season's bigger disappointments, shouldn't have put themselves in a position of needing all of that help.

I didn't even have a problem with Jon Gruden yanking his starters, including quarterback Jeff Garcia, early in Tampa Bay's 21-19 loss to lowly San Francisco in Week 16. The Buccaneers already had captured the NFC South, and Gruden was satisfied with settling for the No. 4 seed, which assures the Bucs of facing the New York Giants in the wild-card round. Gruden's starters will likely see even less playing time Sunday against Carolina.

"We were going to use the last two games of the regular season to get some young players an opportunity to play, because that's a great teacher -- experience," Gruden said.

Solid plan. So was Gruden's intention, while preparing for the Panthers, to budget some time this week to "take a peek" at the Giants. After all, that is the most important game the Bucs will play.

And what about the Giants? They certainly have nothing to gain by playing their starters the whole way in their season-finale against the New England Patriots Saturday night on NFL Network. Sure, the Giants would like nothing better than to stop the Patriots' quest to be the first NFL team to finish the regular season at 16-0. However, that will no doubt be less important to Tom Coughlin than having the healthiest roster available to take on Tampa Bay. Rest assured that Coughlin and his assistant coaches are devoting part of this week to taking a peek of their own at the Buccaneers.

And what about the Patriots? They have the most interesting circumstances of any team getting ready to play a final regular-season game. With home-field advantage through the playoffs long secured, they have only one reason to beat the Giants: To maintain a perfect season. Is that worth keeping Tom Brady and other starters on the field the whole game? I don't think it is, but Bill Belichick could have other ideas, and he is not going to reveal them before kickoff.

After all, the Patriots were in the same boat for their Week 16 game against the Miami Dolphins, yet Belichick did not rest any starters on the way to a 28-7 victory. He did do some liberal substitutions on defense, giving starters extended breathers at various points.

Belichick also has left Brady and other starters in the game late in blowout triumphs earlier in the year. I wouldn't take such risks. I would have a hard time living with myself if Brady or Randy Moss or Wes Welker were to suffer an injury while playing a game that had no impact on my playoff position -- or in the second half of a lopsided game -- and wasn't available to help me win a fourth Super Bowl.

Perfection is wonderful, but at what price? I'm okay with going 15-1 when I know I've taken a step to help increase my chances of having my key players healthy for the three games they must win in order to be Super Bowl champions. I'm not okay with going 16-0 and then losing one of those three games because a key player was hurt in the season-finale.

I don't accept the premise that resting starters at the end of the regular season is a risk because it can leave them rusty for the playoffs. Even if those players end up sitting around for two weeks, they have played enough football to be ready for a playoff encounter.

I also don't agree that a team that doesn't do all it can to win its last game or two of the regular season is risking the loss of momentum entering the postseason. That has been part of the criticism directed at Gruden for pulling starters against the 49ers and the expectation that he will give them even more rest against Carolina.

Players have their opinions about how their time on the field should be managed. Some publicly voice their disapproval over the playoff-preservation approach. I thought Buccaneers defensive lineman Kevin Carter offered an intelligent response to the question of what he thought about making an early exit from the San Francisco game.

"That kind of stuff is best left to the powers that be," he said.

The powers that be are the ones with the responsibility to do what is best for the team … such as doing whatever they can to help keep starters healthy for the playoffs.

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