GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It's decision time for Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy. I'm guessing he's already made it, even if he was vague on the details in the aftermath of Sunday night's 35-21 victory over the Chicago Bears.
Will McCarthy rest and protect his starters in the Packers' otherwise meaningless Week 17 game against the Detroit Lions? Or will he keep full throttle on a record-breaking season in hopes of entering the playoffs on the highest note possible?
McCarthy is already on record this season as saying the Packers "won't play scared" in their remaining regular-season games, and indications were that he was prepared to push for a perfect 16-0 season if the opportunity availed. But that possibility ended Dec. 18 in Kansas City, and the Packers' victory Sunday night locked up home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
The Lions, on the other hand, will have substantial incentive next weekend -- knowing that a victory would aid their chances for the No. 5 seed in the playoffs and lead to a better wild-card matchup than if they were the sixth seed. A Lions victory, in fact, could be the difference between a trip to the Superdome to play the New Orleans Saints (as the No. 6 seed) or playing at the Dallas Cowboys or New York Giants (as the No. 5 seed).
McCarthy continued his tough talk Sunday night, but for the first time offered a caveat that suggests he won't do anything rash, especially with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, to secure a victory over the Lions.
"I'm not going to stand here and tell you we're going to give away an opportunity to win a game," McCarthy said. "We're going to play to win the game next week. I'm not real excited about a division opponent coming in here and thinking we're not going to do everything we can to get to 15-1. But health is an issue for us and I think that's stating the obvious."
Added Rodgers: "I think we need to get healthy. That's the most important thing. This was a good win for us to get back on the right track [and] get the No. 1 seed obviously. Now that we have the top seed locked up, I think the priorities may shift a little."
It stands to reason that the Packers won't play any of the starters who have been nursing injuries or haven't played in recent weeks. That list includes running back James Starks, who left Sunday night's game again because of his troublesome sprained ankle, receiver Greg Jennings (knee) and perhaps right tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee).
But the real question is whether McCarthy will play healthy stars such Rodgers, cornerback Charles Woodson and linebacker Clay Matthews. The Thanksgiving Day game between the teams was a chippy affair that led to a pair of ejections, most notably for Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and it would be understandable if McCarthy wanted to hide the women and children from a motivated Lions team.
When I asked him if healthy starters would play against the Lions, McCarthy said: "I don't have an answer for you. I need to see how the players get in here tomorrow and it usually takes until Tuesday to really get a handle on a projection of who's available and who is at risk and who isn't."
Rodgers and Woodson, two veterans McCarthy often leans on for advice, both deferred to the coach on this issue. Woodson said "I anticipate playing," a natural response for any player, but Rodgers offered a more nuanced answer that suggested he wouldn't be surprised to have a lighter load next week or potentially sit out altogether.
"I think that's going to be up to Mike depending on how he wants to play it," Rodgers said. "We'll fall in line. I think as a close friend of [backup Matt Flynn], I wouldn't mind seeing him get an opportunity to play a little bit. But I'll definitely do whatever Mike says."
Asked if he hoped to play for a chance to match Tom Brady's NFL record of 50 touchdown passes in a season, Rodgers said: "I think that's safe." He has 45 this season after throwing a career-high five against the Bears.
With all due respect to the rest of the Packers' roster, Rodgers is the central figure in this debate. He is the one player to whom an injury would absolutely and unequivocally end the Packers' Super Bowl hopes. A patchwork offensive line kept him pretty clean Sunday night -- he wasn't sacked and was hit once -- but we all know how active the Lions' defensive line can be.
I get how abhorrent the idea of pulling back might sound to McCarthy and perhaps others in the Packers organization. And I think I understand the value of entering the playoffs on a high note. The Packers did just that last season, beating a Bears team in Week 17 that played to win despite having its playoff seed locked up, and rode the momentum to Super Bowl XLV.
The Packers had no choice then. They do now. If their only goal is to win the Super Bowl, it's hard to envision how beating the Lions at all costs in Week 17 is going to help. And it would almost certainly take four quarters of participation from starters to secure, knowing the Lions have come back from deficits of 13 points or more four times this season.
"There's something to be said for finishing the season well," Rodgers said. "The Bears tried to keep us out of the playoffs last year, last game of the year. It would be nice to finish out the season the way we started, with a strong showing in a home game.
"That being said, you have to take into account the health of your football team. We have some guys banged up. We'll see what Mike says this week."
I'm not sure if McCarthy will announce it publicly, but I have a hard time believing he won't pull back. Maybe it will help a division rival earn a better seed. That's not the Packers concern right now. Getting to the playoffs unscathed should be their only priority.