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Play-sit dilemmas abound in NFL; 10 things to watch this weekend

Happy New Year to all. Can't believe the growth in the interest in this game, and in web coverage of the NFL. At the start of this decade, I wrote once a week for this Web site -- Monday Morning Quarterback, maybe 1,500 to 2,000 words -- and now, well, it's pretty much gone out of control, with 10,000 to 12,000 words a week in-season.

How much farther can it go? What will I be writing (if I'm still covering this game on Jan. 1, 2020) a decade from now, in terms of volume and topic? The one thing about this league, week to week, is there's never a shortage of topics. This week's is one I believe will have a long-term impact on the way late-season games will be played.

I can tell you that the NFL -- in particular, Roger Goodell -- is very concerned about teams not playing all-out to win late in the season. Indianapolis is the biggest example of this, obviously, handing the game to the Jets last week by pulling Peyton Manning and other starters after 35 minutes and allowing New York to rally for a 29-15 rout. That lit the fuse, with the locals up in arms at the Colts throwing away a probable victory and the continuation of the chance for the first 19-0 season in NFL history. On Sunday, the following teams, solidly in the playoff hunt and with little to play for, have to decide how long their first-teamers will play:

Indianapolis. At Buffalo, history says Manning will play long enough to extend his starting streak to 192 games and then little more. It'll be interesting to see if the local outcry will make Jim Caldwell play his starters longer, but knowing Bill Polian, I doubt it.

New England. The Patriots have never subscribed to the full-rest thing for starters, so I'd look for Tom Brady, as beat-up as he is, to play at least a few series Sunday at Houston. He might play into the second half. I know he wants to. More important entering the wild-card round next weekend (either Saturday night or Sunday) will be the health of defensive-line mainstays Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren.

Cincinnati. No doubt in my mind we'll see a healthy dose of J.T. O'Sullivan in the last football game ever at the Meadowlands. Who's he? The backup quarterback to Carson Palmer. I can't see Palmer playing four quarters, or even four series, against a team with the kind of changeup blitzing the Jets practice. And with the Bengals likely to play Saturday afternoon of wild-card weekend, I look for Marvin Lewis to take every chance against the Jets (the luckiest team on the face of the earth), on the road entering what is likely to be a short practice week, to rest starters.

San Diego. Coach Norv Turner told me the other day Shawne Merriman (plantar fasciitis) won't play against Washington, which will give Merriman at least 20 days between games to rehab his foot. Because Washington is an aggressive defensive front, I don't expect to see Philip Rivers the whole day either.

New Orleans. All bets were off even though the Saints have clinched NFC homefield advantage ... until I talked to Sean Payton Friday afternoon. The Saints are 2-2 and have been outscored 100-96 in their last four games. I was sure Payton had to see his team play well heading into the playoffs (it hasn't played well since routing New England five weeks ago), but he told me he was more interested in having his team healthy for the playoffs. He doesn't want to risk injury to Brees, what with Julius Peppers reborn in the last couple of weeks. Risky move by Payton. His offense isn't playing consistently well. But Payton told me he worked his team hard in practice this week, under controlled circumstances, and values that more than risking Brees in the game Sunday.

The other NFC teams. Minnesota, Philadelphia, Dallas, Green Bay and Arizona all are in. All but Green Bay are still eligible to win the second seed. So I would expect every team but the Packers to play starters until their games are out of hand either way.

If the NFL's rules-making Competition Committee can't muster up the outrage over the way the final couple of weeks are played in some venues, I expect the league office to push the committee toward some action.

The Saints. First time all season I've made this an entity, rather than an individual. But the Saints have sputtered so badly over the past month (how exactly does a tremendous offense, playing at home, score zero touchdowns against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the final 46 minutes last Sunday?) that Sean Payton has to play a meaningless game with a sense of urgency Sunday at Carolina.

1. Shane Lechler going for a 69-year-old record. Lechler, the Oakland punter, will finish the best season a punter ever had against Baltimore, barring a terrible day. He's already all but smashed his net-punt record, averaging 44.0 net yards per punt; the NFL record was set by Lechler, at 41.2 yards, last year. Sammy Baugh set the all-time gross-punting average in 1940 (often quick-kicking on third down) of 51.4 yards. Lechler's at 51.1 now. "I'll be booming 'em Sunday,'' he told me the other night. He'd better. If Lechler punts six times, he'll need to average about 57.7 yards per punt to get the record.

2. Drew Brees going for a 27-year-old record. In 1982, Ken Anderson completed 70.6 percent of his passes, the most accurate season in NFL history ... but the year should probably have an asterisk, because a 57-day players strike shortened the season from 16 to nine games. Anderson threw 309 passes that year. Brees has thrown 514 so far this season ... and completed 70.6 percent. The Carolina pass-rush will be Brees' biggest problem Sunday.

3. The Vikings, trying to make a play on defense. Amidst the Favre-Childress brouhaha, we've neglected to concentrate on the lack of defensive playmaking. Only a combined eight sacks and forced turnovers in the past four games; and in three of those game, the Vikes have surrendered 360 yards or more, including Monday night against the previously anemic Bears.

4. Eric Mangini trying to make an incredible final impression. He might be fired by Tuesday, because Mike Holmgren's going to come in and make a decision on the future of Mangini, likely next week. But he'd be the hottest coach to be fired in recent history. If the Browns beat the traveling Jags on Sunday, Cleveland would finish with a four-game win streak.

5. A great game in Dallas. Philly's hot, with six wins in a row. Dallas is hot, with two very impressive ones (New Orleans and 17-0 at Washington). The NFC East is at stake. A first-round bye is at stake. This will be a good one.

6. Win-and-in for the Jets, Ravens. As much as I've ridiculed the Jets backing in with wins over Curtis Painter and J.T. O'Sullivan (if it happens), I'm reminded of what Bill Parcells once said. He asked me to pull out a Giants media guide and looked at the history section. "W, L, W, W, L,'' he said. "See that? You don't remember how those games were won or lost. All you know is if you either won or lost. That's it. That's all that matters.'' So if the Jets make it, no one's going to put on Rex Ryan's career résumé: Handed playoff berth, 2009. Baltimore will get a test in Oakland, believe it or not. Raiders will play hard.

7. Aaron Rodgers playing to top Brett Favre. Favre's career high for passing yards: 4,413, in 1995. Rodgers needs 215 to surpass that Sunday in Arizona.

8. Chris Johnson's quest for history. The Tennessee running back needs 132 yards to get to 2,000 for the season, and he needs 234 to break Eric Dickerson's all-time single-season rushing record. The Seahawks knows this is all the Titans are playing Sunday, so this will be a good test for the want-to of the Seattle defense.

9. My All-Pro Team to take shape. I'm pretty firm at most positions, but I'll be watching the games Sunday and asking some questions Sunday night of players and coaches to solidify opinions at fullback, left guard, right tackle, three spots on the front seven and both safeties. I would like to see Percy Harvin have some serious impact on his game against the Giants to confirm his offensive-rookie-of-the-year pick over Michael Oher and Alex Mack. Still finalizing coach-of-the-year thoughts between Marvin Lewis, Jim Caldwell, Sean Payton, Norv Turner and Josh McDaniels. That list I'll be getting to at about 5 Monday morning.

10. Bill Sheridan trying to save his job. The Giants defensive coordinator, who I believe was whistling by the graveyard when he said this, remarked Thursday that he wasn't worried about his job status. He's the only one.

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