Doug Pederson has a decision to make as the Eagles head into their final two regular-season games, and it would seem a fairly tricky one. It's less one decision, actually, than a series of decisions, all of which are aimed at putting the Eagles in the best of positions to reach the Super Bowl. Will he rest his starters? If so, whom will he rest, and for how long? Such are the burdens of being 12-2, owning a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs, and holding the No. 1 seed in the conference.
"You just make the best decisions for your football team," Pederson told reporters Monday, "and if that means resting a guy, you rest a guy – or two or three. But you also have to maintain the edge with these players, and you've got to maintain that confidence and that dominating swagger, and you've got to keep that alive."
Pederson, of course, isn't the first coach who has had to negotiate the closing weeks of an NFL season with an eye toward ensuring his team is as ready as it can be for the postseason. It's a matter of prioritization, of understanding what a particular team needs most at a particular time. The last time the Eagles were in a situation similar to this one was in 2004, when they were 13-1, had clinched home field throughout the NFC playoffs, and had just lost Terrell Owens to a broken ankle. Andy Reid played his starters for one possession against the Rams, then benched them for the rest of that game and the season finale against the Bengals.
Both at the time and in retrospect, it was the correct strategy. That Eagles team was the class of the NFC by a significant margin, and just two things could derail it: losing another important player or players to injury, or choking when confronted with the prospect of (and the pressure to avoid) losing a fourth consecutive NFC Championship Game. Reid took care of both problems at once, keeping his best players out of harm's way and sending a strong teamwide message: We can lose T.O, rest our starters, and still get to the Super Bowl. We're that good. Play like you have all season, and we'll be fine. In 2009, when Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins was a rookie with the Saints, his coach then, Sean Payton, played backups during a Week 17 game against the Panthers, even though the Saints, after winning their first 13 games, had lost the next two. They lost to Carolina, as well, and it didn't matter: They went on to win the franchise's first Super Bowl.
"If you're a team that takes each individual game as one game and you focus on one challenge at a time, then the last result doesn't matter when it comes to what you're going against the next time," Jenkins said. "And I think we're one of those teams. We focus on the task at hand. We know where we want to get to."
Pederson has a slightly different scenario before him. Payton's team still had Drew Brees. Reid's still had Donovan McNabb. Pederson's has lost Carson Wentz. And these Eagles haven't clinched the No. 1 seed yet, though they can if they beat the Raiders on Christmas night and/or if the Vikings lose Saturday night in Green Bay to the Packers. Given the strengths and weaknesses of this particular team and the context of this particular season, then, here's how Pederson's list of priorities for these last two games, at home against the Raiders and the Cowboys, should look:
1) Secure home-field advantage.
2) Keep Nick Foles sharp and healthy.
3) Give the defense a chance to rest and regroup.
The first priority should be self-evident. The Eagles are 6-0 this season at Lincoln Financial Field, and the relative discomfort that a dome team (such as the Saints or the Falcons) or a less-experienced team (such as the Rams) would experience while playing at the Linc could afford the Eagles a necessary edge. Without Wentz, they need home field to have any shot, realistic or otherwise, of reaching the Super Bowl.
Which brings us to 2) and 3). Considering its abysmal performance over the last two to three weeks, the defense is a greater concern for the Eagles than Foles is, but only if Foles can still suit up and play at a relatively high level. Pederson has to balance those two goals: getting Foles enough playing time so he and the Eagles receivers can get on and remain on the same page – there was some miscommunication between Foles and Alshon Jeffery, for example, Sunday against the Giants – and not putting him at risk. Once the Eagles have to go full-Nate Sudfeld, it's over for them.
So to cover all those bases, here's one suggestion for a plan that Pederson might implement: Even if the Packers beat the Vikings on Saturday night, assuring the Eagles the No. 1 seed, Pederson should play Foles and the rest of the team's starters for most, if not all, of the Raiders game. If the Eagles beat the Raiders, Pederson can rest all the starters against the Cowboys. (Sorry to those of you who wanted to spend your New Year's Eve afternoon watching a meaningful football game.)
But … should the Vikings win Saturday and the Eagles lose on Christmas, all bets are off against the Cowboys. Home-field advantage is that vital. You give that game all you have, and you take your chances.