METAIRIE, La. — Common sense says the New Orleans Saints should rest as many starters as possible in Week 17.
Their history agrees.
Although coach Sean Payton wouldn’t reveal his intentions after the Saints (13-2) secured the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a 31-28 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, his track record suggests he’ll play it safe.
In 2009, Payton rested starters in Week 17 when the Saints had the No. 1 seed locked up — even though they had lost two straight games in Weeks 15-16 and could have used a momentum boost. They showed no rust in their playoff opener (a 45-14 win) and wound up winning the Super Bowl.
In 2006, Payton rested starters in Week 17 when they had the No. 2 seed locked up — and they wound up winning their first playoff game two weeks later.
And perhaps most telling, the Saints decided to play their starters in Week 17 in 2010 when they had an outside chance at the division title and No. 1 seed — and they wound up losing key players Jimmy Graham, Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Ivory to injuries before losing their playoff debut a week later. Payton later talked about how much he second-guessed it.
“I’m sure Sean is gonna look at that schedule and obviously make the best decision for what he feels like we need,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who should spend this week trying on visors and baseball caps to find the right fit — even though that would mean finishing the season with just 3,992 passing yards, his first season below 4,000 since joining the Saints in 2006.
“You know, every team’s different,” Brees said. “But it’s one of those where you take advantage of the time to rest up, get healthy, get your body right. At the same time, you want to stay on point, keep the rhythm, keep the good habits.”
Most Saints players took the “we’ll see what happens” route. But cornerback Marshon Lattimore, for one, practically campaigned for an extra week of rest.
“That’s why I’m so glad we got the win,” Lattimore said. “Next week hopefully we can rest our starters and we can have two bye weeks, get our bodies ready. That’s what we need. It’s a long season, everybody gets dinged up here and there. So we need to be healthy.”
The Saints’ offensive line could use the rest most of all — even though it remains to be seen if two weeks off will be enough for Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead. Armstead left Sunday’s game early after aggravating the torn pectoral that had sidelined him for the previous five weeks.
“I’m gonna keep working, man, working to get back,” Armstead after the game. “It’s frustrating for sure. I felt like I was past this. But not yet, so I’m gonna keep working on it.
“Tried to fight as long as I could. Got worse. Tried it again, just wasn’t able to. Didn’t want to be a liability, so I had to shut it down.”
Armstead’s backup, Jermon Bushrod, also missed Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury. Center Max Unger played Sunday after suffering a concussion two weeks ago. Left guard Andrus Peat (who also played both right tackle and left tackle during Sunday’s game because of Armstead’s injury and a brief injury to right tackle Ryan Ramczyk) has also battled a variety of minor injuries this season.
Meanwhile, standout players such as Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, Cameron Jordan, Lattimore, Sheldon Rankins, Demario Davis and Marcus Williams are just too darn valuable to risk losing to fresh injuries — though it might not be mathematically possible to rest them all.
A team loaded with backups would still be compelling to watch, though, because of Bridgewater.
The former Minnesota Vikings starter and first-round draft pick worked his way back from a devastating 2016 knee injury to play well for the New York Jets this preseason. So well that the Saints decided to trade a third-round draft pick for the 25-year-old — even though he had only a one-year contract.
The Saints mostly wanted to improve their backup QB situation. But they also wanted to make some recruiting inroads in case Bridgewater ever makes sense as a possible successor to Brees.
It will be interesting to see how much interest Bridgewater draws from teams looking for a starting QB this offseason. Or if he’s willing to consider staying in New Orleans as Brees will turn 40 in January.
Playing well on Sunday would likely enhance both of those options.
Last but not least, there is a potentially serendipitous side note to the Saints hosting Carolina on Sunday. In 2009, before the 13-3 Saints won the Super Bowl, they lost to Dallas, Tampa Bay and Carolina.
This year, their two losses have come against Tampa Bay and Dallas.
So really, they can’t lose.