If the Green Bay Packers keep winning, and the upcoming schedule suggests they might, coach Mike McCarthy is going to have some important decisions to make in the coming weeks about his team’s quest to achieve what only two other teams have done since the merger: An undefeated regular season.
We’ve seen a handful of teams reach the point the Packers are currently at. Most recently, the 2009 New Orleans Saints started 13-0 while the Indianapolis Colts began that same season with 14 straight wins. The New England Patriots went undefeated during the 2007 regular season, and both the 2005 Colts and 1998 Broncos started 13-0. We’ll focus on those five teams.
Each coach approached their undefeated starts differently. So many factors go into a coach’s decision to play their starters, rest them or a combination of both that it’s impossible to nail down a way that is guaranteed to succeed. But by studying what went right and wrong for each coach and his choices, we can hopefully paint a picture for McCarthy to use.
After starting 13-0, the Saints kept their foot on the gas to achieve perfection. At the time, the 11-2 Minnesota Vikings were still in contention for the NFC’s No. 1 seed, which undoubtedly was a factor in the Saints pursuing every win they could get. The Cowboys ended the Saints’ perfect season in Week 15, but that didn’t stop them from playing Drew Brees and the rest of the starters the very next week (despite a Vikings’ loss) against the Buccaneers. New Orleans lost that game, too, but homefield advantage was secured with another Vikings’ loss.
No players of significance were injured during week’s 15 and 16. The Saints then rested their starters in Week 17 in a loss to Carolina Panthers. The Saints would go on to win two home games in the playoffs before knocking off the Colts in the Super Bowl.
The Colts went the opposite way as the Saints in ’09. At 14-0 and with homefield advantage locked up, the Colts benched Peyton Manning and several others starters during the third quarter of the Colts’ Week 16 game with the New York Jets. Up 15-10, Curtis Painter and the backups squandered the lead down the stretch and lost 29-15. Coach Jim Caldwell’s choice to play it safe was widely criticized, and even center Jeff Saturday said he didn’t blame the Colts’ fans for booing during the fourth quarter of their Week 16 loss.
The next week, Manning and the Colts’ starters played just three series in a 30-7 loss to the Bills. There wasn’t much for rust in the playoffs, as the Colts beat the Ravens by 17 in the divisional round and held off the Jets in the conference championship. Indianapolis then lost to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV.
The Patriots went full steam ahead in ’07 despite clinching home field advantage during a Week 15 win over the Jets. During the Patriots’ run, talk of going 16-0 almost never surfaced unless coach Bill Belichick was asked during press conferences. Former players on that team have said that New England never addressed the idea of perfection as a team. The Patriots approached Week 17 the same way they went after Week 1.
The final two weeks, New England played their starters for full games in wins over the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants. Miami was an easy victory but New York played the Patriots tough in a 38-35 loss. Some opined that game gave the Giants the confidence they needed to make a run in the playoffs and eventually beat New England in the Super Bowl. The Patriots would go on to beat Jacksonville and San Diego in the playoffs before the Super Bowl loss. During the stretch, the idea of going 16-0 was rarely discussed
These Colts started 13-0 but ran into a Chargers’ team fighting for a playoff spot in Week 15. While Indianapolis played all their starters the entire game, San Diego jumped out to a 16-0 lead before holding on to win, 26-17. Coach Tony Dungy, who was dealing with the suicide of his son, decided to play his starters just one series the next week. The Seahawks would beat the Colts in Week 16, 28-13. Dungy followed the same script during the finale in a win against the Cardinals. In the divisional round of the playoffs, the Steelers became the first No. 6 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed as Pittsburgh scored the game’s first 14 points and then held off the Colts’ late rally. At the time, the Colts were just the second team to start the season with 10 or more straight wins and not reach the conference championship.
The Broncos started 13-0 but were upset by the 6-7 Giants on the road in New York in Week 15. Kent Graham found Amani Toomer for the winning score that ended the Broncos perfect season. Mike Shanahan played his starters throughout the game despite having home field advantage locked up. Denver then lost again the next week in Miami (with all starters playing the entire game) before winning its final game against Seattle (again, with starters playing all 60 minutes). The Broncos would roll through the AFC playoffs before beating the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII.
What should McCarthy do?
That’s an interesting question to answer, even with these examples. A win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday or a 49ers loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers gives the Packers home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. We’ll know more about what McCarthy plans to do once that hurdle is jumped.
The overwhelming majority of players have already expressed a want to go for perfection. Donald Driver went as far as to saying that McCarthy won’t change a thing because he knows the players will want the chance at playing for 16-0. Would he go against his locker room and sit top players, like Dungy did in ’05?
We know a good portion fans will want the Packers to go after 16-0 with the same foot-on-the-gas mentality that got the Patriots to perfection.
I’ll say this: There’s no connection between the Patriots’ chase of a perfect regular season and their Super Bowl loss. None. They ran into a hot team that matched up well in the Super Bowl. The same could happen to this Packers team whether they go for 16-0 or not.
What are we to make of the Colts’ mixed results? It should be pretty obvious that resting starters as much as the Colts did in ’05 was probably a mistake. Sure, you avoid injuries that could potentially derail a season, especially at the quarterback position. But taking your offense and defense off the field for the better part of a month before playing a postseason game against a good football team is obviously a risky way to go, too. Football is a game of preparation and skill, but it’s also about confidence and momentum. Sitting your starters can erase both of those, especially for the extended periods that the Colts did.
Overall, I think history dictates that the Packers should go for 16-0 with everything they have. If they fall in the coming weeks, like the Saints experienced in ’09, then you take your foot off the pedal. ESPN insider Adam Schefter made a great point in his mailbag on Monday. He said that the Packers have an “obligation to go for it,” as the NFL’s most historic team is on the cusp of something that has been accomplished by just two franchises in 40-plus years. The Packers also have the chance to go 19-0, something no team in NFL history has ever done. With that in mind, it’s hard to not subscribe with Schefter’s “history” thinking. Can you imagine the Packers playing their backups over the starters in a Christmas game against the Chicago Bears or a New Year’s Day game against the Detroit Lions? Vince Lombardi and Curly Lambeau would be doing barrel rolls in their respective graves.
That brings me to another point that I’ve heard Aaron Rodgers mention on at least a few occasions when asked about chasing 16-0. Rodgers has noted that the Packers play two divisional opponents during the final two weeks, and any potential loss the Packers can give them now could be critical in playoff positioning. Beating the Bears (7-6) in Week 16 could all but eliminate them, and the possibility may exist of doing the same to the Lions (8-5) a week later. The Packers learned last season, albeit on the other side of things, that knocking a team out of the playoffs when given the chance is a smart thing to do. They might get two chances of doing that in their final two games.
So what will McCarthy do? Surely he’s already weighed the pros and cons of what other teams in this situation have done. I’d be shocked if he goes down the road that Dungy did in ’05. McCarthy understands history. He’s more Belichick than he is Dungy, and there’s no way he doesn’t know the pulse of his own locker room. Those 53 guys want the opportunity.
I think he goes for it with guns blazin’ to start each of the three remaining games. They can play it like a third preseason game from there. If the Packers get up by a substantial amount, the starters come out sometime in the second half. Any other situation (given the Packers stay undefeated), the starters play all 60 minutes.
That’s my take. What say you?——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2