The dilemma Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan faces this week isn’t easy, although most NFL coaches wouldn’t mind being in his position. Denver clinched the second seed and a firstr o u n d bye in the AFC playoffs when it beat Oakland 22-3 on Saturday. So this week’s game at San Diego is meaningless in the playoff race. Shanahan must decide if he should sit his key starters to avoid injury or play them to avoid collecting rust before their first playoff game Jan. 14 or 15. “Everybody has differences of opinion of what we should do,” Shanahan said. “The people that say we should play the starters the whole game, then when somebody gets hurt they change their mind and say ‘You guys are dummies, you played a guy and got them hurt.’” Shanahan wouldn’t reveal his plans, but defensive end Trevor Pryce said he knows what will happen. “We’re not sitting,” Pryce said. “I know for a fact we’re not sitting. I’m sure we will all play the entire game.” In 1996, the Broncos clinched the first seed in the playoffs on Dec. 1. Shanahan rested many players in the final month, then watched as Denver lost its first playoff game against Jacksonville. That loss is considered one of the more disappointing in franchise history. Two years later the Broncos started 13-0 but didn’t let up. In the final regular-season game, after Denver’s playoff seed was decided, quarterback John Elway threw all 36 of the Broncos’ passes and running back Terrell Davis rushed 29 times for 178 yards and most starters played deep into the fourth quarter against Seattle. The Broncos plowed through the playoffs and won the Super Bowl. Shanahan usually doesn’t tinker with a winning formula, which is why Pryce figured Denver’s starters could expect to play in the fourth quarter Saturday at San Diego. “You don’t want to limp in the playoffs and be rusty,” said Pryce, who came to the Broncos in 1997. “You keep your timing down. I figure we’ll do that again.” Teams have dealt with the issue in different ways. Last season New England played its key starters for three quarters in a meaningless regular-season finale against San Francisco. Philadelphia barely played its starters over the past two regular-season games after it wrapped up home-field advantage in the NFC. Both teams advanced to the Super Bowl, so there is no one correct approach. The biggest risk of playing starters is injury. Some Broncos might sit with minor injuries. Linebacker Al Wilson has a thumb injury, running back Mike Anderson has a sprained ankle and receiver Ashley Lelie needed 14 stitches to close a gash on his right arm, and all are candidates to be inactive against the Chargers. So are defensive end Courtney Brown and cornerback Champ Bailey, who have been dealing with nagging injuries. But, as Shanahan pointed out, if the Broncos play a healthy player and they get injured, he’ll be criticized and it could hurt the team in the playoffs. The Broncos sat almost every key player at Green Bay two years ago after wrapping up their playoff position the previous week. The difference with that regular-season finale was Denver didn’t have a bye the following week. “We got that bye week and we got plenty of time to rest,” safety John Lynch said. “I want to play and I want to win that football game.” Shanahan said he would go with his gut feeling when he figures out how long players such as Jake Plummer, Rod Smith, center Tom Nalen, Pryce and Lynch will play against San Diego. But Shanahan said the debate about his decision boils down to how it turns out. “When you win you made the right decision, when you lose you made the wrong decision,” Shanahan said. “We do know that.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 476-4891 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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