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Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur must weigh risks in deciding who plays and how much against Detroit

GREEN BAY - Matt LaFleur has a big decision this week. Or, maybe it’s not that hard a decision for him after all.

LaFleur’s Green Bay Packers wrapped up the NFC’s top seed by rolling over the Kirk Cousins-less Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night just a few hours after the Dallas Cowboys opened that door with a loss to the Arizona Cardinals late Sunday afternoon.

Now LaFleur has to decide whether to sit Aaron Rodgers and some other key starters next Sunday against the Detroit Lions, or play them at least some of that game knowing he also has a built-in bye for the wild-card round of the playoffs the following week.

If he sits his stars, LaFleur would eliminate all risk of injury to them, and the Packers have had enough injuries to good players this season to give him pause. But then with a bye for the wild-card round on top of that, it would be three weeks between games for those players.

More: How do you think the Green Bay Packers played against the Minnesota Vikings? Vote in our ratings.

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There’s no doubting that having a bye in the first round of the playoffs is a good chance to rest while everyone else is beating each other up fighting to stay alive. But two weeks off is enough to get stale and lose some of the mojo from a 13-3 season to date.

LaFleur still has time to think it through, but it sounds like he’s going to play everybody against the Lions, which is absolutely the right call.

“If you ask me right now my gut is these guys are going to play at least a little bit next week,” LaFleur said after the game.

It’s something his star players want also. Rodgers and Davante Adams were adamant they want to play at least some of the Lions game. In fact, Rodgers flat out said they’re playing.

“I’m going to play next week, and I expect Davante to play and our guys to play,” Rodgers said. “So we’re looking forward to finishing out the season on a high note and then getting the bye.”

Said Adams: “Having two weeks off is not as advantageous, I wouldn’t want to do that, so I want to play next week at least some.”

How much they should play is another matter. If I’m LaFleur they’re playing at least the first quarter, and maybe the first half. Not sure I’d put them out there after that, though. At some point the injury risk isn’t worth it anymore.

But as much as a coach might hate putting his key players at risk in a game that doesn’t matter, the risk of not playing them is even greater. Most importantly, they’ll prepare and practice all week like they normally do, and then get enough work on game day to keep their bodies and minds primed to game speed.

When I think of the risks of resting guys, the team I first think of is the 1996 Denver Broncos. They’re forgotten in the year the Packers won their first Super Bowl since the Vince Lombardi era, but those Broncos were 13-2 and had the top seed in the AFC locked up heading into the final week of the season. They sat quarterback John Elway and other key guys in that last game, then had the wild-card bye. In the divisional round, though, Jacksonville went into Denver and knocked the stale Broncos out of the playoffs.

A more recent example is the Baltimore Ravens in 2019. They had the AFC’s top seed locked up going into the final week of the regular season, so coach John Harbaugh sat quarterback and eventual league MVP Lamar Jackson. After then being off the wild-card round, the Ravens gave a dud performance in their divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans.

“(Playing everyone) doesn’t come without its own risks,” LaFLeur said. “You kind of have to weigh everything and then make the best decision possible for your football team.”

Rodgers’ injured toe doesn’t appear to be much of an issue in the decision, either, because it appears to be getting close to healed.

He broke the pinky toe in his left foot while training on his own during his COVID-19 quarantine in early November. He played through the injury and aggravated it to some degree in every game since, but it appears never enough for a major setback. He’s now about seven weeks removed from the injury.

He said he played against the Vikings without taking a painkilling injection and did not get his toe stepped on during the game. He appeared to run without any limitations against the Vikings as well, and unlike as recently as last week he wasn’t limping by the end of the game.

Rodgers practiced one day last week and thinks he has a good chance of practicing two days this week. And being able to rest his toe during the wild-card round just might be enough to get him healed even assuming he plays at Detroit.

“I feel like we’re getting really close,” Rodgers said. “We haven’t done an X-ray in about a week, but there’s definitely significant healing, and we’re getting close to being 100 percent, which I expect to be definitely by the bye week.”

The Packers caught a break Sunday when the Cowboys’ loss opened the door to clinching the top seed early. But LaFleur is right to not make that a double-edged sword. As tempting as it might be to keep Rodgers, Adams and some others out of harm’s way, the greater risk is seeing a special season flame out because the team lost its edge from taking too much time off.

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