That philosophy doesn't fly well with fans.
So the NFL is exploring what possibilities it has to make these final games a bit less like pre-season cake walks. The opportunities of maintaining the status quo yet compelling the Colts and Saints of the world to play on with their starters are bleak. Should the NFL demand teams NOT in the playoff picture play their established starters and eschew giving backups and rookies a chance? Additionally, how long would a mandate last after Tom Brady gets his Bernard Pollard on again and a playoff contender loses a valuable contributor (oops, there goes Wes Welker)? In short, the NFL has no way to (and never would) demand that teams play "starters." That would only add an additional layer of Belichick-esque gamesmanship as the league tries to quantitatively define what is a "starter."
So, what's a league to do? I have three options.
THE MODEST FIX - Stop seeding all divisional winners 1 through 4.
Take the Green Bay Packers. They're stuck in the NFC 5 seed at best. Despite their win/loss/tie versus Arizona today, they cannot play into the top 4 and gain a home game because Minnesota already has the North division locked up thanks to the Vikings dominance in head-to-head. Yet if the Packers beat Arizona (head-to-frickin-head) the Pack is still in 5th place even though their record is better than the Cardinals, who are resting the aged Kurt Warner (possibly because of osteoporosis).
If the league allowed the teams to be seeded on their overall record, a Green Bay win today might mean a home game for the Packers. That's definitely something worth playing for (even if the Packers are playing to NOT be the 6 seed). Equally, Arizona would definitely need to play for their seeding. Still guarantee a spot for division winners, but take away a bit of the spoils for such a feat because like it or not, winning the NFC West isn't the same as winning the NFC East.
While this scenario is meaningless to teams locked into top seeds like the Colts and Saints, it could potentially remove the impetus for lower seeded playoff teams to rest starters. Give them more to play for.
THE MODERATE FIX - Weeks 15, 16, and 17 are exclusively divisional matchups.
After head-to-head, the next tiebreaker for two divisional teams is the division record. For the Colts, these 6 games finished in week 15. For the Saints, week 17. Green Bay knocked out 2/3 by week 10 with both Chicago games left in weeks 12 and 16. So teams looking at playoff opportunities may have tiebreakers decided relatively early. (I know, I know. If you want the playoffs, win the games.)
If the final three weeks are round-robin divisional matchups, then both top tiebreakers come into play. If a team lost the earlier matchup, then they get a chance to knot the head-to-head total. At the same time, 50% of the weight of the second tiebreaker (division record) is still in flux entering week 15.
Now, I'm woefully ignorant on what it takes to schedule a 256-game NFL season, but I think they could find someone to make this division-only flurry work. Hell, maybe even pride might compel teams like Dallas not to rest starters against rivals like the Eagles.
THE NUCLEAR OPTION - Add a team. Three conferences with no divisions, top four from each advance.
Why not blow the place to hell. Here's a wild solution that reaches in lock-step with the NFL's plan of world dominance. The Jaguars move to Los Angeles and the league expands internationally with the new London/Montreal/Mexico City franchise to push the total teams to 33. Abandon all divisions and say adios to the AFC and NFC.
Welcome to the Western, Central, and Atlantic Football Conferences, each one comprised of 11 teams. The newly realigned league will now play a round-robin divisional schedule (5 home, 5 away) along with 3 teams from each of the other conferences. The top four teams from each conference will advance to the playoffs and be seeded 1 to 12 with the top 4 getting first round byes.
The head-to-head tiebreaker may or may not survive the lack of home and away matchups. But the season-ending divisional flurry (maybe only the final two weeks) would remain. This would make a division championship all the more impressive (10 games vs. 6) and worthy of playoff fates.
What might it look like?
Western: Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Arizona, Denver, Houston, Dallas, Kansas City, St. Louis.
Central: Minnesota, Green Bay, Chicago, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Tennessee, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Buffalo
Atlantic: Philadelphia, New England, NY Jets, NY Giants, Baltimore, Washington, Carolina, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Miami, Mexico City/London/Montreal
* * *
The key to all of these options is making the final weeks' games pivotal and not so easily meaningless. With no way of forcing starters and stars to play, the whole season must be re-envisioned. The playoffs (12 teams, 4 rounds) are sound and don't need much tweaking after they get going. But the NFL must solve the problem of sneaking more full-price, pre-season games into weeks 16 and 17 or the fans will start voting with their feet.