Tom Brady said he wanted to play in Week 18, and it looks like he will get his wish.
Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers clinched the NFC South with their win over Carolina on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, in the process locking themselves into the fourth seed in the NFC playoff field with one regular-season game to play. The Buccaneers can improve to 9-8 with a win over the Falcons this coming weekend, but they cannot help or hurt themselves in terms of the playoff pecking order. Win or lose in Atlanta, they will play a home game the following weekend against a Wild Card opponent.
That necessarily and inevitably raises the question of whether the team will hold any of its regulars out of the Atlanta game. The decision weighs the value of momentum and valuable work against the specter of 11th-hour injuries. Head Coach Todd Bowles has clearly come down on the first side of that equation, after it was pointed out to him that the Bucs have nothing tangible to gain in the standings.
"No, but we can get better at a lot of things, so right now I'm planning on playing them," Bowles said Monday. "We'll see as the week goes forward, but we can get better at a lot of things that we need to work on, and we don't need to take our foot off the gas."
At this point, it is a philosophical decision on Bowles' part; the coaches have not yet met to hammer out the exact plan, and injury developments during the week could cause that plan to be tweaked. The Bucs could even start all their healthy regulars but then pull some of them before the game is over.
"It's possible," said Bowles. "Like I said, it's early in the week. We haven't made any decisions yet. We haven't met on it, we haven't talked about it, everything is on the table. We'll talk about it and we'll move forward from there."
As Bowles noted, there's only so many players a team can reasonably hold out, given the limits of a 53-man roster. He couldn't rest all five offensive line starters, for instance, because that wouldn't leave him with enough to field a full crew. And playing some of the starters impacts decisions at other positions. If Brady is playing, for example, you can bet the team is going to keep its top O-Linemen in the game. In addition, resting starters and playing a large amount of reserves would mean a good amount of the active players would be pulling double duty on offense or defense and special teams.
"You want to start everybody else and those guys are playing all the special teams, and now they're playing the whole game," said Bowles. "You've got to weigh the pluses and minuses to that. So we'll see how the week goes and we'll try to make some arrangements or corrections if we need to make them, and we'll go from there."
As for the possibility of injuries, it's undeniable, but it's an unfortunate risk a team takes every time it steps on the field. Bowles isn't treating this game any differently than the ones that came before.
"I mean, it's football," he said. "You can't play 16 games and then worry about the 17th. You can't play three preseason games and 16 games and practice every day and say you may get hurt in the 17th game. You can get hurt the first week, you can get hurt in training camp. If you worry about that, you're probably going to get hurt anyway. We signed up to play football and coach football, that's what we're going to do. Everybody that loves football, that loves to play, will play the game. Injuries are going to happen. That doesn't mean it happens in Week 17, the playoff game or preseason. You've just got to coach it and you've got to play it. If you worry about injuries, you probably don't need to be playing this sport."
After losing three times in the span of four weeks in the season's second half, the Buccaneers have recorded two consecutive victories, needing frenzied comebacks in both to pull them out. In Sunday's 30-24 decision against Carolina, the offense had its best outing of the season and rediscovered some of its big-play magic. Beating the Falcons won't be easy, but a third straight win would have the team riding high going into the postseason and potentially peaking at the right time.
"It'll boost morale," said Bowles of a potential third straight win. "Winning helps period, whether it's playoffs or regular season. You want to win every game you play. Obviously we had some tough ones we lost, we had some tough ones we won. But winning the last two the way we did, obviously that builds morale more and you want to go in on a high note."