The latest news is indicating that San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis is reportedly dealing with a grade two hamstring strain that could potentially cost him this week's game against the Arizona Cardinals. Larry Grant filled in ably in place of Willis for 3+ quarters on Sunday so there is not a huge concern for the short term future.
Figuring out issues of rest and injury prevention where possible over the final quarter of the season is an issue to consider. The 49ers hold a one-game lead over the New Orleans Saints with four games to go. Since the two teams did not face off during the regular season, the next tie-breaker is conference record. The 49ers are 8-1 while the Saints are 6-3. If they finished tied in conference record, the next tiebreaker is record against common opponents, so long as there are at least four such opponents. The 49ers hold that tiebreaker. Both teams played the Bucs, Rams, Giants and Lions. The 49ers are undefeated against those teams and the Saints lost to the Bucs and Rams.
So, given all that nonsense, how do you think the 49ers would be best served handling any potential rest? For arguments sake, say the 49ers beat Arizona and the Saints lose in Tennessee. Do you then be extra cautious and sit Willis against the Steelers? Coach Harbaugh said it will come down to what the trainers say when it comes to his playing status.
With the rest of the team, what is the smart play given that the team conceivably would already have an extra week of rest coming to them once the playoffs start Until the team clinches a bye this is a pretty moot point. But, thanks to their strong play through the first 3/4 of the season, they have put themselves in a position to get a bye locked down fairly early. There is still the chance of catching Green Bay, but in all likelihood they are rolling to that number one seed.
I think there are competing schools of thought with regards to player rest as some think the players should get rested up for the playoffs and others would rather keep a good thing going on the field. I suppose there is plenty of room to do a little bit of both depending on the players.
My thought is to have guys like Frank Gore get some playing time each week, but get them plenty of rest. 13-3 or 14-2 would be potentially awesome records, but once that two seed is locked in, it's all about looking ahead to the playoffs. That is not to say the team should just ignore the remaining games. Part of looking ahead to the playoffs is making sure you keep the team sharp. A team that virtually ignores the final two games could be a very rusty team when they finally are back to taking things seriously.
I suppose this might be a topic better served for a couple weeks from now (or even just next week if things go right on Sunday), but given Patrick Willis' injury, I think it is a very important topic to consider.