To rest key Eagles or not? Doug Pederson could face decision soon
The Eagles still need to win one game to clinch the No. 1 seed - unless the Vikings lose on Saturday.
The Eagles will clinch the NFC's No. 1 seed and home-field advantage through the conference playoffs if they beat the Oakland Raiders on Christmas night, and that's the only scenario coach Doug Pederson will consider at the moment. He's preparing his team to try to win its 13th game of the season after advancing to 12-2 and securing a first-round bye in Sunday's 34-29 victory over the Giants.
But the Eagles could potentially clinch the top seed on Christmas Eve — just hours after their final practice of the week. The Minnesota Vikings, who are 11-3 and the next-best team in the NFC, play Saturday night against the Green Bay Packers. If the Vikings lose, the Eagles would be locked in as the No. 1 team.
Then Pederson would have a decision to make about whether he wants to rest his starters for part or all of the final two games of the season.
Pederson has started considering the possibilities, but he doesn't want to go too far down that path because of the uncertainty. If the Vikings win and the Eagles lose, the Eagles would need to win in Week 17 against the Dallas Cowboys for the top seed.
"My focus is winning the game on Monday night, because that to me is the most important thing," Pederson said. "Once we get to next week, we'll figure out next week. But my mind-set this week is all about the Oakland Raiders, Monday Night Football, and if we win that one. And like I've said pretty much these last few weeks, we control our destiny right now. So that's the focus for me."
Does that mean Pederson will play his starters on Monday no matter what happens to the Vikings?
"I'm not going to cross that bridge because you're asking a question that I don't know the answer to yet," Pederson said.
At this point, it's a hypothetical discussion better suited for talk radio than the Eagles locker room. The team returns to practice on Thursday, and the starters will prepare to play. But if and when they clinch the top seed, there are legitimate arguments on both sides of the debate about resting players.
Pederson admitted that the Eagles are fatigued from a difficult three-game road stretch even though he has tried to manage the practice schedule to give them breaks. That continues this week, with the Eagles holding a walk-through on Friday instead of a full practice.
"I think it's just a compounding interest of everything that's sort of taken place in the last month of our season," Pederson said.
The Eagles already have off the first weekend of the postseason. So players have two weeks between games regardless of what happens in the final two games, offering time to rest and heal.
However, there is a risk of injury if the starters play. The injured reserve list is already loaded with some of their most valuable players — Carson Wentz, Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, and Darren Sproles don't need company. The New England Patriots lost all-pro Wes Welker to a knee injury in Week 17 of the 2009 season, and they could have used Welker during their playoff loss to Baltimore. Just imagine the mood in Philadelphia if a key player was lost in a game without any playoff implications.
"You just make the best decisions for your football team and if that means resting a guy, you rest a guy, or two or three," Pederson said. "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. It's not a preseason game … where you can rest in week four and rest all your guys. You can't do that because you're still limited to the roster limits on game day. Guys are still going to have to play, but at the same time, I'm going to be smart about the decisions we make moving forward and getting guys who need it rest, if possible."
The Eagles faced this desirable dilemma in 2004. They had the top seed clinched after 14 games, although they lost star wide receiver Terrell Owens in Week 15. Andy Reid didn't play his starters for part of Week 16 and sat many key players in Week 17. The Eagles still won two playoff games and reached the Super Bowl.
Last season, the Dallas Cowboys clinched the NFC's top seed before a Week 17 game in Philadelphia. They didn't play running back Ezekiel Elliott or linebacker Sean Lee, and they removed many key players — including quarterback Dak Prescott — before halftime. The Cowboys still lost their first playoff game. So the time off doesn't necessarily lead to postseason success — and more times than not in recent years, it hasn't helped.
The Eagles' situation is even more complicated this year because Nick Foles just became the starting quarterback last week. There's value in having him on the field with the top offensive players entering the postseason. However, if Foles suffered an injury, the Eagles would be left with Nate Sudfeld as their quarterback.
"You want Nick to play as much as you can and get as many reps as you can and let him play and continue to work through some things and work the rapport with the offense and all of that," Pederson said. "That's another one that when we win and if we get to cross that bridge, we'll make that decision."
Sudfeld joined the Eagles' practice squad in Week 1 and earned a promotion to the roster in November, but he has not yet attempted a pass this season. Pederson said he would like to get Sudfeld into the game during the next two weeks. Week 17 could be the time if the Eagles clinch the top seed this weekend.
The Eagles could always adjust their plans if the Vikings lose on Saturday, but that's out of Pederson's control. What's in his control is preparing the Eagles for a Christmas night game against Oakland, and they'll get ready to play this week like they have in any of the other 14 games this season.