- Associated Press - Saturday, January 9, 2016

Nearly every coach and player heading to the playoffs will insist how beneficial skipping wild-card weekend is. It’s all about the bye in January.

Is it all that much of a help on the road to the Super Bowl?

In the minds and approaches of anyone on a winning team, it certainly is, no matter the potential unexpected consequences.

“Rest and a lot more extra practice time,” said Cardinals coach Bruce Arians about the benefits of a week off from playing.

“We get to focus on a number of different teams, and especially ourselves. We get to go back and just do a lot of fundamental work.

“But the biggest thing is rest.”

Combined, naturally, with recovering from injuries. Arizona, which trailed only Carolina in the NFC, plus Denver and New England in the AFC, earned the byes despite some missing some key players down the stretch.

The Panthers, for example, figure to have their only proven running back, Jonathan Stewart, ready next weekend. Peyton Manning gets another week to heal for the Broncos, as do DeMarcus Ware and Chris Harris Jr.

New England might have an easier time listing its players who have not been hurt over the past six weeks, when it lost four of six games.

“Yeah, I think it’s important for everybody this time of year,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “Our bye week was a long time ago, so this is the first time we’ve had off in quite a while.

“A lot of guys have been fighting through different kind of bumps and bruises over the course of the season, so you try and take advantage of that as best you can to feel good. Because we’re going to need everybody … to be at their very best.”

Being at their very best isn’t a guarantee when they reach the divisional round, of course. The overall record of teams with a wild-card bye since the current format was adopted in 1990 is 128-83, a .607 winning percentage, according to STATS. That’s hardly dominant.

Yes, 17 teams have grabbed a postseason bye and then won the Super Bowl, including the past two champions.

But also consider this: Denver is 7-6 in the playoffs when it gets a bye. Even worse, Carolina is 1-3. (New England is a strong 20-6, hardly surprising; Arizona has never had the bye before.)

While the benefits of not suiting up for a game are many, there is some potentially negative residue. Rust, for example. A drop-off in execution. Even over-preparing.

“There are a lot of different scenarios, so you try to do your best mentally to get ready,” Brady said, “and physically you’ve just got to put as much effort in as you can to make yourself feel better.”

Most dangerous is the rust aspect. NFL players and coaches are accustomed to preparation by rote, and their routines most definitely are disrupted by the bye. Many scoff at the notion, particularly coaching staffs given so many more hours to get ready for the next opponent.

“Nah, man. It’s rest, no rust,” Denver cornerback Aqib Talib said. “We played 17 weeks straight, you don’t get rusty in six days. We’re good.”

We’ll see. It’s a real danger. The 2007 Cowboys can tell you about it, as can the 2011 Packers. Both were victimized by the Giants, who did not have a week off, in the division round after being regarded as hot Super Bowl contenders.

Or the Broncos a year ago when they laid a huge egg against Indianapolis.

Finding the balance is the secret. Sure, we can picture Bill Belichick with a mad scientist’s look on his face scouring through hours extra of film and scouting reports.

There’s even a theory throughout the NFL - and college football - that when certain coaches have even more time to devise game plans, they are unbeatable.

And there’s no denying that, when applied correctly, the bye helps reveal strategies to use against the next opponent, which, of course, is coming off a hard-fought wild-card match.

Arians believes the Cardinals have covered it all, from self-evaluation to preparation.

“Both,” he said. “We’ve already done a five-game breakdown, a 16-game breakdown of ourselves. So we know everything that they have on us, all three teams, so you look and you just work fundamentals.”

And you don’t play, an advantage, but not the huge edge some make it out to be.

Except for the chance to, well, do what millions of fans do weekly.

“I’ve always been a fan of football, always watched the NFL,” Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said, “and it’s great to always sit back wherever I can this year. You sit back and enjoy the games, pop a little sports drink - not any pop or soda - lay back, watch the games. It’s always cool to see how the games go down and just enjoy them.”


AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton and Sports Writers Pat Graham, Bob Baum, Jimmy Golen and Steve Reed contributed to this story.


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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