Strickly Panthers: To play or not to play?

CHARLOTTE – When head coach Ron Rivera got home Sunday evening and had a moment to reflect on what his team has accomplished, he surely realized that his Panthers now have one thing that the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears he played for didn't – a 13-0 record.

That's quite a feat, but Rivera also realizes that the '85 Bears possess something much more valuable than his Panthers can't currently claim.

"It goes back to the fact that it's really not about going undefeated – it's about winning the Super Bowl," Rivera said. "That's the thing that you have to really focus on: What is the goal?"

Rather than being able to relish all of the positives that came out of Sunday's 38-0 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, Rivera was left to concern himself with the negatives.

"There are a lot of things that bring you back to reality," he said. "One of the things I had to think about was the guys who were in the training room after the game. There are some things that shake you up and make you think about some other things."

Even before cornerback Bene Benwikere was lost for the season to a broken leg and stars like tight end Greg Olsen and running back Jonathan Stewart stirred some fear with injuries of their own, the debate about how Rivera should balance keeping players sharp versus keeping them fresh and healthy already was in full swing.

It's an annual hot topic for the few teams in recent history that have found themselves unbeaten in December. Here are a few things to consider.

THERE ARE STILL THINGS TO PLAY FOR: Even though the Panthers now stand as one of just eight teams to start 13-0 in the Super Bowl era, they still haven't clinched homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The Arizona Cardinals (11-2) are still in the running and in fact the Panthers can't eliminate Arizona from contention in Week 15 if the Cardinals win.

"As far as we're concerned, this week coming up is important," Rivera said. "We'd love to be able to have homefield all the way through, so the best way to do that is to approach it one game at a time and play to win these games."

The ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl, and that's more likely if the Panthers earn homefield advantage. They need to keep winning, and playing starters is of course the best formula for that.

THERE IS SUCH A THING AT TOO MUCH REST: Let's say hypothetically even while losing a game and thus taking the undefeated talk off the table, the Panthers still manage to clinch homefield before their final regular season game.

Even in that scenario, turning all the starters into spectators isn't a slam dunk.

If the starters didn't play at all in Week 17, that would mean they'd go three weeks on the calendar without playing a game. No, they wouldn't be risking injury, but they would risk losing the edge that got them to where they now stand.

Last week, Rivera referenced the 2009 San Diego Chargers team that barely played its starters in Week 17 and was subsequently upset in its first playoff game two weeks later.

"That cost us in my opinion," said Rivera, who was defensive coordinator for that team. "I thought we were rusty."

THERE'S NO WAY TO REST ALL THE STARTERS: Rivera did rest some key players down the stretch Sunday with the outcome well in hand, but when Benwikere went down to his injury, Josh Norman went back in the game.

"We would have loved to take a few more guys out, but we just don't have the personnel," Rivera said. "You can't have a guy up for every position."

Given the makeup of NFL rosters, that is a reality for even the healthiest of teams. Just 46 players can dress for game day, so somebody has to play.

THERE IS NO CLEAR RIGHT ANSWER: This, in a nutshell, is the reality of the situation and one of the ultimate examples of how hindsight is 20-20.

If the Panthers win their first playoff game, this media-driven debate will barely if at all be mentioned. If the Panthers lose their first playoff game, then whatever decisions Rivera make will be scrutinized by some and outright blamed by others.

Is that fair? No.

Will that possibility steer Rivera's decision-making process? No.

"You can't play scared," he said.

View game action photos from Carolina's 38-0 win over Atlanta.

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