The Recent History of Resting Starters in Week 17 Provides a Warning for the Chiefs

The data isn’t conclusive, but worrying trends about resting starters in Week 17 are compelling enough to take notice of as the Kansas City Chiefs return to action next weekend.
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When the Kansas City Chiefs chose to rest their starters in their Week 17 regular-season finale, setting themselves up for a de facto double-bye-week before taking the field in the divisional round of the playoffs, many fans and members of the NFL world expressed concern that the Chiefs' time off may produce more rust than rest.

Has that been a problem for other teams, though? Do teams who rest in Week 17 have a greater chance of losing their first playoff game?

The answer is complicated and, spoiler alert, not completely satisfactory.

Using data from the past 10 years to see if resting has an impact on the first playoff game a team plays, the data is a bit surprising.

Comparing the win percentage of teams who rested their starters to those that didn’t, the rested teams had a staggeringly poor .333 win percentage in their first playoff game. The teams who did not rest their starters had a .786 win percentage in their first playoff game.

One thing to note about the win percentages is that only six teams, out of 40 possible teams who had a bye week, rested their starters in Week 17. Many of the teams competing for the top two seeds with a bye week were still fighting for seeding in Week 17, so they were forced to play their starters. In fact, so few teams rested their starters it’s hard to say the sample size is big enough to draw conclusions from. Here is the raw data:

Rested starters Week 17 and won next playoff game: 2 (2017 Eagles, 2018 Saints)

Rested starters Week 17 and lost next playoff game: 4 (2011 Packers, 2016 Cowboys, 2017 Steelers, 2019 Ravens)

Didn’t rest starters Week 17 and won next playoff game: 28

Didn’t rest starters Week 17 and lost next playoff game: 6 (2010 Falcons, 2010 Patriots, 2012 Broncos, 2013 Panthers, 2014 Broncos, 2016 Chiefs)

So what do we learn from looking back on the recent history of resting starters? Some things, but nothing conclusive.

While many Super Bowl finalists were in the group of teams that didn’t rest their starters, one clear outlier in the list of teams that did rest their starters are the 2017 Eagles. In fact, those 2017 Eagles lost 6-0 in Week 17!

However, one team on the list of teams that rested starters and lost is very similar to the 2020 Chiefs, and some in the NFL media have taken notice of it.

The more one looks at the comparisons to the 2011 Packers, the more brow-raising it gets.

The 2011 Packers were riding high off a Super Bowl win. Aaron Rodgers, fresh off a Super Bowl MVP, looked nigh unstoppable all year and led his team to the best record in the NFL. While the team around him was mostly average, Rodgers led a high-flying passing attack that seemed invincible. Even with a surprising loss to the Chiefs in the regular season, the Packers were Super Bowl favorites entering the playoffs.

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The 2020 Chiefs are riding high off a Super Bowl win. Patrick Mahomes, fresh off a Super Bowl MVP, looked nigh unstoppable all year and led his team to the best record in the NFL. While the team around him was mostly average, Mahomes led a high-flying passing attack that seemed invincible. Even with a surprising loss to the Raiders in the regular season, the Chiefs are Super Bowl favorites entering the playoffs.

The similarities are definitely eerie. The Packers, after resting starters in Week 17, famously flamed out in the playoffs by losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in their first playoff game.

Did the Packers lose because of rest, or were there other factors at play? It is hard to say for certain and in all likelihood, it is a combination of many things. Regardless of the multitude of reasons teams like the 2011 Packers fell short, recent history does provide a stark warning for the Chiefs to be ready for their battles ahead in the playoffs if they wish to complete their run it back tour.