FOXBOROUGH – The Bengals’ somewhat surprising (if we’re being honest) win over the Broncos on Monday night gave the Patriots the top seed in the AFC playoffs, meaning they will be at home until, and if, they advance to Super Bowl XLIX.
It also means the Patriots’ final regular-season game, Sunday against the eliminated Bills at Gillette Stadium, is largely meaningless.
So the natural question is: Will Bill Belichick take the opportunity to rest any of his players?
If you were looking for a detailed answer on Tuesday morning at Belichick’s news conference, you weren’t going to get one. In times like these, Belichick has but one consideration.
“We’ll do the same thing we always do, so it won’t be any different this week than it’s been any other week, it won’t be any different this year than it’s been any other year: we’ll do what we feel is best for our football team. Period. Whatever is best for our team, then that’s what we’ll try to do,” said Belichick, when asked if he’ll manage players’ reps in practice.
This is the fourth time under Belichick that the Patriots’ playoff seed was set after 15 games. It also happened in 2010 and 2007 as the No. 1 seed, and 2004 as a No. 2.
In the regular-season finale those years, some key players sat out, with all listed on the injury report. Otherwise, starters played but didn’t always finish.
In 2010, with the Patriots hosting the Dolphins in the finale, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, and Deion Branch were inactive. Hernandez and Branch were listed as questionable, with Welker probable. It was Welker, of course, who tore his ACL in the season finale the season before in Houston, so that may have been a case of exercising caution with an important piece of the offense.
The Patriots beat the Dolphins, 38-7, with Tom Brady playing the first half and the first possession of the second half before Brian Hoyer replaced him.
There was no way Belichick would sit anyone in 2007. That was the game in New Jersey against the Giants in which the Patriots were going for the NFL’s first 16-0 regular season. They did pull it off narrowly, 38-35, with Brady going wire-to-wire.
And in 2004, with the Steelers the top seed, the Patriots hosted San Francisco to close out the season. All of the starters who sat out – Ty Law, Richard Seymour, and Kevin Faulk — were listed as doubtful or questionable.
Brady played the first three quarters, with Rohan Davey coming on in the fourth, as the Patriots won, 21-7.
So history shows that while there is a chance an important player, such as Rob Gronkowski, could be put on ice against the Bills, it’s unlikely.
Players play; it’s what they do. You’d be hard-pressed to find a member of the team who doesn’t want to be in uniform on Sunday, even with nothing to gain per se.
“I don’t think Buffalo cares that much that we clinched the No. 1 seed,” Devin McCourty said. “Right now I think it’s good for us that our focus is on Buffalo. We realize this is a game we’re playing and we want to go out there and win. We talked about that after Thanksgiving is when football starts, and it’s important for us to get better each time we step on the field.
“Getting the No. 1 seed doesn’t change that. We still want to go out there and play good football every time we go out there.”
And the last time the Patriots were out there wasn’t that good — particularly on offense.
Given Belichick’s none-too-pleased reaction to the performance against the Jets Sunday, it makes sense he would have those players on the field.
The Bills might not offer as many looks as the Jets, but they still offer a strong defensive line, and a good opportunity for the offensive line to tighten things up. The Patriots after all will have to sit out the bye week before hosting the divisional round.
Brady believes it’s important for the Patriots to end the regular season on a high note.
“This is a big game for us in that it gives us an opportunity to try to improve certainly on last week’s performance and with the week off, you realize we’re going to have a little time to rest up,” Brady said. “We just want to go out and play well and see if we can string together as many good plays as possible. This [Buffalo] defense will challenge you. They’ve got a good front, one of the best defenses in the league, one of the best defenses we’ve faced all year. They’re tops in the league in almost every category. We’ve played a lot of good defenses this year. This one doesn’t really take a backseat to anybody.”
Asked one more time about preparing his club for the playoffs, Belichick got zen-like.
“All I know is what I do, what I’ve done. I’ve been doing this for 40 years, been fortunate to be in a lot of these postseason situations over that period of time, some as a head coach, some as an assistant coach, watching other people, observing.
“Every single day and every single week and every single year, that’s all I try to do. The answer to every question really is the same, based on the information, based on the situation: always try to do what’s best for the team.”