Scott Fowler

Undefeated Panthers season isn’t worth a last-game gamble

If the Carolina Panthers can wrap up the NFC’s top playoff seed before the season finale at home against Tampa Bay, quarterback Cam Newton (1) and a number of others should sit that game out.
If the Carolina Panthers can wrap up the NFC’s top playoff seed before the season finale at home against Tampa Bay, quarterback Cam Newton (1) and a number of others should sit that game out. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Protect the perfect season or protect the starters?

That is a decision Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera may have to make in less than a month. And to me it isn’t a hard one. You protect the starters, and you let 16-0 fly out the window forever if that’s what it takes.

If the 12-0 Panthers can get to 15-0, they will have already clinched homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs entering the regular-season finale Jan. 3 at home against Tampa Bay. And if that has happened, I would bench Cam Newton for that entire game.

Why? Because Newton is both the Panthers’ franchise and, for my money, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player this season. Carolina won’t win the Super Bowl without him. And that’s the big goal, whether it comes attached to a 19-0 or an 18-1 or a 17-2 season.

The quarterback wants to win so badly he puts himself in harm’s way too often when he plays (as he did in the New Orleans game). And I don’t think you can just put Newton out there and say “Don’t run,” because that’s like telling a pitcher to go out there and never throw his fastball.

I would also sit Jonathan Stewart. In years past, Stewart has been quite injury-prone, and No. 28 has already had a career high in carries in 2015 with a lot of football left. And I would sit linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, tight end Greg Olsen, cornerback Josh Norman and one or two others.

This doesn’t sound quite like how Rivera will play it because of a bad previous experience he had in San Diego, but it’s not too far away. The coach, of course, has already thought about all of this.

“The goal is not to go 16-0 or go undefeated,” Rivera said Monday. “The goal is to win the Super Bowl.”

But while Rivera would treat a game that is meaningless in terms of playoff position differently, he doesn’t sound like he would sit out his stars completely. I asked him point-blank Monday if Newton, Stewart and other key players would play at all against Tampa Bay on Jan. 3 if the Panthers were 15-0.

Said the coach: “Hypothetically speaking, yes – to a point. And the reason I would is I was on a team (where) we didn’t and it cost us, in my opinion, because I felt we were rusty. Now I wasn’t the head coach then and I didn’t make that decision. But I went along with it. ... I say we’ve got to do it smart. We’ve got to be judicious about how we do it.”

Rivera was referring to the 2009 San Diego Chargers, with Rivera as the defensive coordinator. The Chargers were 12-3 and locked into the No. 2 AFC playoff seed entering the final regular-season Sunday. Couldn’t move up; couldn’t move down. So head coach Norv Turner decided to play many of his starters for only one quarter.

Quarterback Philip Rivers played two series. Star running back LaDainian Tomlinson carried the ball twice for 1 yard. A number of slightly injured Chargers didn’t play at all.

San Diego won the game anyway over a hapless Washington team. Oddly enough, a young fullback named Mike Tolbert scored the winning TD.

Then the Chargers had a bye week to rest. (Carolina will almost certainly get one of those as well – the Panthers’ first playoff game will almost surely be at home on Jan. 16 or 17).

But two weeks later, in 2009, the Chargers were bounced out of the playoffs at home, upset in their first playoff game by a wild-card New York Jets team that had gotten hot.

That loss still stings Rivera. So it sounds like he might play a season finale more like the second preseason contest, when he usually has his starters play about half of the game. I would play it more like the fourth preseason game, when a lot of the primary veterans don’t play at all.

Of course, this discussion could all be moot. Thanks to their comeback 41-38 win over New Orleans Sunday, the Panthers hold a two-game lead over 10-2 Arizona with four to play. But Carolina must stay in front of the Cardinals to maintain the No. 1 seed for the NFC playoffs.

Arizona would win the tiebreaker if the teams finish with the same record – and that could happen at 14-2, 13-3 or 12-4 – because of the Cardinals’ better NFC record in those scenarios.

So there will be something to play for Carolina at least the next two Sundays, at home vs. Atlanta and on the road at the New York Giants. That’s a guarantee.

And if Arizona keeps winning and Carolina loses even once, the Panthers will also need to beat Tampa Bay on the final Sunday to hold onto what would be the first No. 1 playoff seed in franchise history.

It remains an interesting debate, and one that different NFL teams have handled differently over the years. Certainly, it is tempting to aim at historical significance – a 19-0 season has never happened in the NFL. And if the 2015 Panthers win seven more in a row, they will be remembered forever.

Think about how everyone would feel, though, if Newton took another big hit in a meaningless game that knocked him out of the playoffs. Think about what it would mean for Carolina to not play Derek Anderson in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay – a team that Anderson went 2-0 as a starter against in 2014 – but to have to play him in the 2015 playoffs. Or if Carolina lost Olsen, or Kuechly, or any of the other half-dozen Panthers players likely to make the Pro Bowl this season because of an injury vs. Tampa Bay.

The risk doesn’t justify the reward. If the Panthers are truly an unforgettable team destined to stay undefeated, then their backups will be able to pull off the win against Tampa Bay.

If Carolina does lose in the regular season, though, because it rests its starters, so what?

Winning the Super Bowl is the holy grail.

Everything else – undefeated season included – is only window dressing.

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