FOXBOROUGH — On Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots will play a team that will not make the playoffs. They could rest some of their key contributors. The coaching staff could tuck away its more precious plays to keep them off their postseason opponents’ scouting reports.
But if they want a first-round bye, the Patriots need to beat Miami — and pull for other results to tip in their favor.
“There’s nothing we can do to help our situation unless we win,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We have to win for anything to happen positive. That’s no guarantee that it will, but that’s the first prerequisite. We are operating under that premise. We’ve got to go out there and win. If we want things to be better, we have to help ourselves. We have to do that first. That’s certainly what it’s all about.”
The Patriots could earn a first-round breather if they beat the Dolphins, and the Texans or Broncos lose.
“It’s one less game you have to play,” Belichick said. “In this league at this time of year, you know you’re playing a good team. Whoever you play, they’re going to be good. Having to play one less game, I think there’s some advantage to that, definitely.”
So if there’s a situation against the Dolphins where the Patriots consider a play they would have preferred to save for the playoffs, they will call its number if can affect the result.
“That would definitely be a consideration if the game didn’t mean anything standing-wise,” Belichick said of keeping some playbook pages closed. “You’re out there playing, but the game doesn’t really count in the standings. It counts in your development as a team. But I think when you’re in a situation like we are, where we need to win to improve, then it’s worth winning to improve.”
At least publicly, the Patriots have not determined whether Rob Gronkowski will play on Sunday. As of Friday, Belichick said Gronkowski’s availability remains a medical issue. The tight end would first require clearance from team doctors. The coaching staff would then determine whether Gronkowski and the team would benefit from a tuneup in the regular-season finale.
Gronkowski (forearm/hip) has missed the last five games. He participated in practice on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Wednesday, Gronkowski said he was eager to play, but trusted the medical staff’s determination for clearance.
If Gronkowski doesn’t play, Aaron Hernandez, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Daniel Fells will be the team’s tight ends. All three started against Jacksonville last Sunday.
“There’s a number of different things he can do,” Belichick said of Hoomanawanui. “Line up in the backfield, on the end of the line, play on special teams. He’s been a guy that’s filled some different roles for us from time to time, depending on what the needs are. That’s something that, progressively and with time, should continue to get better.”
Cornerback Marquice Cole (finger) didn’t practice again on Friday and is doubtful for Sunday’s game.
The Patriots designated 20 other players on the injury report, including Gronkowski, all listed as questionable.
Cole has some banged-up company in the secondary. Aqib Talib (hip) played only eight snaps against the Jaguars last Sunday. Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring/knee) didn’t dress for the game.
“It’s part of the game,” said cornerback Kyle Arrington. “That’s where we just have to step up — pick up the pieces, pick up where they left off, go out there and do our best. Then get them healthy and get them back when we can.”
The Dolphins might try to target the defensive backfield. Last Sunday, Jacksonville’s Chad Henne completed 29 of 51 passes for 348 yards.
“We can learn from Jacksonville’s game, where toward the end, it felt like they were able to take advantage of some of the man-to-man coverages,” Dolphins running back Reggie Bush said earlier this week.
Wilfork fined $30k
The NFL on Friday said that Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork had been fined $30,000 for a hit that drew a penalty during last Sunday’s win.
Wilfork was flagged 15 yards for unnecessary roughness after hitting Jaguars offensive lineman Steve Vallos at the conclusion of a fourth-quarter interception return by Patrick Chung. According to an NFL spokesman, Wilfork “struck the opponent in the head with his forearm.”
Following the game, Wilfork said he was sticking up for teammate Trevor Scott, after Vallos sent Scott to the turf from behind with a questionable hit.
Chung was not fined for his fourth-quarter hit on Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts, which was flagged by five officials on the field and cost the Patriots 15 yards.
The Patriots practiced on the game field at Gillette Stadium for the second straight day. They went through a light walk-through on Wednesday inside the practice bubble. Sunday’s forecast calls for cold and windy conditions.
“We’re not trying to forecast it,” Belichick said. “We’re practicing in whatever comes. I’m sure sooner or later, we’ll get something.”
In their last home game, the Patriots forced the 49ers to fumble six times. Because of the expected cold, the defense will attack the ball.
“You’ve got to have a heightened awareness when you get in these games, because no matter how mentally strong guys are, it does change things,” Devin McCourty said. “Your hands get cold. Defensively, we definitely have more of an awareness to try and attack the ball.”
Jermaine Cunningham should be ready to play on Sunday for the first time since Nov. 22. Cunningham, suspended for four games because he violated the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, participated in all three practices this week. “There’s no way to simulate that,” Belichick said of Cunningham’s reps in practice. “You just can’t replicate it, especially when you’re by yourself. I’m sure it will take a little bit of time.” . . . Chandler Jones will play Miami for the first time this season. The rookie missed the 23-16 win over the Dolphins Dec. 2. “The offense is very versatile,” Jones said of the Dolphins. “Everyone does their job. They have a running back in Reggie who can hurt you in the passing and the running game. We’ve got to contain players like that and contain a quarterback like [Ryan] Tannehill.”