After three weeks of angst, the play-off line-up is set for the month-long run to Super Bowl XLIV, but the drama is not yet over. As happens more and more these days, teams on the outside and their fans are irate over the decision by others already in to play less than enthusiastically on the final Sunday of the regular season, even though the outcome of those games impacted dramatically on the play-off picture.
It began two weeks ago when the then undefeated Indianapolis Colts chose to pull most of their starters midway through the third quarter while holding only a five-point lead against the New York Jets. That lead then soon disappeared, New York won and the Colts become the first team to start 14-0 to get booed off their home field. After that loss without a fight came a firestorm of fan protest over a team not willing to try to make history, ostensibly to serve the larger purpose of resting for the play-offs.
Those feelings intensified last week when Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley claimed several teams would "lay down" in an effort to keep the defending Super Bowl champions out of the post-season. That didn't happen, but there were enough questions in the air about teams not getting a fair chance to make the play-offs because teams with better records did not give a fair effort to win that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spoke publically on it.
"It is something we will look at," he promised on Sunday. "We heard the fans loud and clear. It is something our competition committee has looked at in the past but we are going to ask our competition committee to look at it again in the future. "The league's position has been that play-off-bound teams enjoy the right to rest their starters to prepare for the post-season. We are considering a lot of different things [incentives like extra draft choices for playing their starters].
"I don't think you can punish them for not playing [them]." On the same day, the Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals all made little effort to win against Dallas, Green Bay and the Jets respectively, all teams they will face again this weekend in the first round of the play-offs. The New York Giants, who were already eliminated, appeared to lay down against the Minnesota Vikings as well, a decision that affected the Cardinals, just as the play of the Bengals and Eagles affected other teams.
"We wanted to come out there to win the game, keep razor sharp and gain some momentum going into the play-offs," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. "I understand Arizona had a different agenda." Cardinals' coach Ken Whisenhunt in fact had two game plans depending on how the Vikings-Giants game went. Once the Vikings won and Arizona had no shot at becoming the second seed and getting a first-round bye, he went to back-up players.
Even a division title wasn't worth the effort to the Eagles, who surrendered the NFC East to the Cowboys without a fight once they fell behind 14-0. Either way they would play Dallas again this weekend any way so they opted to play without much fire. "It is kind of embarrassing [to lose 24-0]," the Eagles' Brent Celek said. "I didn't expect to come here and play like this." Neither did the paying customers. That is how it goes in a league where, by the end of the season, some teams have everything to play for, others nothing and a few are left in need of help to reach the play-offs that no one seemed inclined to give.