DENVER • Here is when you know the going is good for the Broncos.
There are four games left on the schedule, and this question was posed to John Fox on Monday: What is your philosophy on resting the starters when the result doesn’t matter?
Too soon? Yes, it’s too soon. The Broncos must finish their veggies before they can have their dessert.
But it’s a dilemma bound to surface. Denver doesn’t need Peyton Manning exposed to a cheap shot any more often than is absolutely necessary. He is so clearly the league MVP — and coming off four neck surgeries, if his numbers make that not so clear.
Go ahead, admit it: the living room goes silent when Manning is sacked. One bad fall by No. 18, this run is over.
So it is a scenario worth considering. Pretend it is the season finale, and Denver (9-3) is locked into a seed.
It could be the No. 4 seed. If the season ended today, the No. 4 Broncos would host the No. 5 Colts in an AFC Wild Card matchup. Manning vs. Luck. TV ratings to make Nielsen dizzy.
It could be the No. 3 seed. Baltimore (9-3) is the No. 3. That will change. The Ravens are doomed for a slide against a schedule that could include four playoff teams (Redskins, Broncos, Giants, Bengals).
It could be the No. 2 seed. That would take some help from the currently No. 2-seeded Patriots (9-3), and Bill Belichick is Scrooge in December (12 straight wins in this month).
Houston (11-1) is the No. 1 seed and holds a tiebreaker against Denver. The Broncos aren’t catching the Texans.
Right now Denver is assured of three things: The Raiders’ best effort Thursday in Oakland, one game in the playoffs and an AFC West trophy that might as well be a lump of coal, if you ask the Broncos.
“It don’t mean nothing,” defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said.
“There’s a lot to play for,” Fox said Monday. “We’ll see where that leads us. I think everybody’s going to be fighting for home-field advantage, for a first-round bye. All those things are things people are competing for at this point.”
Predictably, Fox wasn’t looking past the end of the hallway when I requested his philosophy on the resting-the-starters quandary.
But it pays to have a veteran coach in those situations, and Fox has a working knowledge of how teams have handled it.
The MVP quarterback does as well.
Manning’s Colts sat their first-stringers for the final two games (loss, loss) of the 2009 season. Indianapolis advanced to the Super Bowl.
“As I’ve gone on in my career,” Fox said, his M.O. is to sit the starters for the final game — of the preseason.
As it applies to the regular season, Fox said it depends on how the team is playing.
“The important thing is getting in that tournament and then be playing really well when you get in,” Fox said.
Fox said he believes this playoff picture won’t be set in stone until Week 17. If it comes down to the final Sunday, Denver has the latest kickoff (2:25 p.m.) of the teams that currently occupy the top four seeds.
Denver will know if it needs a win, or can rest.
This is Fox’s belief, for future (Week 17) reference: He might rest the starters for a quarter, even for a half, but it is unlikely he would sit them for an entire game.
“We want to be playing our best football at the right time,” he said.
The going is good, but the Broncos haven’t played their best football.
It’s a safe bet you will see the starters — and Manning — in the final four games.
ALSO IN SPORTS