As the regular season comes to a close and teams around the NFL begin to think forward to the playoffs, many coaches around the league are weighing out the pros and cons of playing, or protecting, the key figures that got them there in the first place.
Time and time again, the question comes up for the fortunate few that have already been rewarded for season long efforts. This year, the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles have the luxury of pulling back the reigns and allowing the banged up starters to get some much needed and deserved recoup time before the "real" season starts.
I have heard a lot of talk this week about the Chiefs possibly sitting/resting starters for Sunday's contest, but to me it seems as though Haley's Chiefs still have a lot to play for. Not only do the Chiefs have the ability to solidify their own playoff positioning but bragging rights in the AFC West is still up for grabs. Not to mention, this young team is still walking the line between good and average, and it's a bit early in the "process" for them to rest on their laurels.
Sitting at 10-5, the Chiefs have already secured a home playoff game, but how they react to their success on Sunday will determine what their playoff picture will look like in January. If the Chiefs can finish what they started back in November when they lost a heartbreaker in overtime to the Raiders, they will lock up the 3rd seed in the AFC and will host the worst of the wild card teams at Arrowhead.
Right now that appears to be the New York Jets, although the Pittsburgh Steelers still have a shot at landing in Arrowhead next weekend.
Where the seeding really becomes import will be the following week. Assuming that the Chiefs continue their home dominance and go 9-0 at Arrowhead, K.C. would then hit the road, drawing either Pittsburg/Baltimore or New England in the second round. As much as the writer in me would savor the opportunity to draw up the Patriots/Chiefs parallels, the fan in me wants no part of Tom Brady in a January game.
But maybe I'm too far ahead of myself.
Meanwhile back in reality, this is Raider week. In the afterglow of the Chiefs clinching their first playoff berth in almost four years, much of the usual fan fair that accompanies Raiders week has been overshadowed by playoff talk. Let's not forget, however, that the Raiders are 5-0 against the AFC West this season and that Oakland handed the Chiefs their third loss back in Week 9 via Sebastian Janikowski's 100lb leg.
I don't know about you, but I for one want some payback!
I'm old enough to remember when Jon Gruden sent a message in the season finale back in January of 2000. The message was clear: the Chiefs' dominance during the 90's was over and his Raiders were now the kings of the AFC West. The Raiders would go on to win three straight division championships, which included a stop in the NFL's biggest dance.
The Chiefs started sending that same message last week when they secured the division crown, but emphasizing that message to the powder keg that is the Oakland Raiders not only seems pleasurable but also down right necessary.
Regardless of their 7-8 record, Tom Cable's squad is one legitimate starting QB away from being a very competitive team. It's imperative that the Chiefs assert themselves as the future of the division before the Raiders develop too much swagger.
Again, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. Perhaps it is time to entertain the idea that this team really is for real and is already prepared to make a run at a Super Bowl. But who on this roster would even qualify to be put on the list of exemptions from Sunday's season finale?
The first and obvious guy on that list would be QB Matt Cassell.
Just three weeks removed from appendectomy surgery, nobody on the roster is more deserving of some R&R than Cassel. But after what we saw on the sidelines last week when Haley briefly pulled Cassel from the lineup to "clean some things up", Haley is going to have one hell of a time keeping Cassel out of this game.
Dwayne Bowe would be another obvious choice to secure from injury, but with major deficiencies at wide receiver, the Chiefs can ill afford to sit the one legitimate receiving threat they have. The other side of that argument is essentially the same. If you risk playing Bowe and he takes an injury, the Chiefs can all but kiss their chances of a divisional round playoff scenario goodbye.
Perhaps rookie Jon Asamoah could fill in for one of the veteran offensive lineman Brian Waters or Casey Weigman. But with Waters being one of the main leaders of this offense and Weigman's 158 consecutive starts streak, I highly doubt we see either of these guys riding the pine at 12:01 on Sunday.
The one guy I can make an argument for sitting would be Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles. The guy has taken a pounding this season and despite his lightened load, although he will never admit it, Charles has been banged up for some time.
The Chiefs have legitimate options at running back with Thomas Jones and the emerging Jackie Battle. The Raiders are sure to stack the box and are determined to stop the Chiefs rushing attack at all costs. Jones and Battle are the perfect bruising backs to handle this kind of physical game and the Chiefs need Charles healthy for the playoffs.
Other than the handful of players mentioned, all of these guys need to play on Sunday and none at this point are deserving of a break. Sure, this team surprised most by making the post season, but they still have a long way to go in terms of the big picture.
So the real question is whether Haley is content with the progress his team has made this season, or is he still preparing this team for the ultimate goal – the Super Bowl?
Judging by how stubbornly dedicated to the "process" Haley has been the last two years, I highly doubt the Chiefs skipper changes his tune now that we have hit crunch time.
WARPAINT ILLUSTRATED MESSAGE BOARDS:
What should Haley do with his starters on Sunday?
To Sit or Not to Sit?
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