FOXBOROUGH — Any doubt the Patriots were treating Sunday’s regular-season finale like a preseason game, with one eye — or maybe both — on the upcoming postseason, was removed when the team’s list of seven inactive players came out 90 minutes before kickoff. In addition to running back Jonas Gray, who was ruled out on Friday with an ankle injury, the Patriots chose to sit six key starters, including four on offense.
At the top of the list was tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose health and availability for the playoffs was likely the primary concern for most Patriots fans heading into the finale. Sitting him against the Bills gives Gronkowski and the other six inactives some extra rest, since the Patriots won’t play until either Jan. 10 or 11, in the divisional round.
Gronkowski, whose last two seasons ended prematurely because of injuries, finished the 2014 campaign with 82 receptions for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns. Coming off major reconstructive knee surgery, he played in 15 of the Patriots’ 16 games.
Not having Gronkowski on the field makes a big difference, especially in the passing game. Without him, the Patriots lost to the Bills for the first time at Gillette Stadium, 17-9.
“It’s a big difference,” said receiver Brandon LaFell. “The middle of the field is not so much open when you go across and Gronk is not there. It’s a lot of double-teams, a lot of sitting back in zone just waiting to catch us, instead of a guy or two over the top of Gronk and Gronk getting double-teamed. It’s a big difference.
“You know Gronk hasn’t been healthy in the last couple of postseasons, so it was smart to let that guy get a rest because he is a big part of our team, a big part of this offense. And we’re going to need him to try to accomplish our ultimate goal.”
In addition to Gronkowski and Gray, the other five inactives were receiver Julian Edelman, offensive linemen Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and cornerback Brandon Browner. All were on the injury report last week, with Edelman missing the Jets game with a concussion and Connolly sitting that one out with a knee injury. Browner (groin), Hightower (shoulder), and Vollmer (back) were all limited in practice.
Michael Hoomanawanui started in place of Gronkowski, while the new offensive line began with Josh Kline at left guard in place of Connolly and Marcus Cannon at right tackle for Vollmer. Jonathan Casillas started in place of Hightower, and Logan Ryan was at Browner’s spot.
Even some of the Patriots regulars who suited up didn’t play much. Quarterback Tom Brady and cornerback Darrelle Revis were pulled at halftime, with defensive linemen Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones, and Rob Ninkovich among those coming out later in the second half.
“No, I didn’t. Nope,” Revis said, when asked if he knew he was coming out of the game after the first half. “[I thought I would play] the whole game, but like I said, with so many variables, so many situations, it might be a spur-of-the-moment-type thing, and guys get pulled. That’s just how it is.”
Playoff tickets on sale Friday
A limited number of tickets for the Patriots’ opening playoff game at Gillette Stadium go on sale Friday at 10 a.m., exclusively through Ticketmaster, the team announced Sunday night.
You can call Ticketmaster (800-745-3000) or go online at www.ticketmaster.com.
The Patriots will face the lowest remaining seed from wild-card weekend on Saturday, Jan. 10 at 4:35 p.m. on NBC in the divisional round.
It is the fifth straight year the Patriots have earned a first-round bye, and their league-leading 10th time since the NFL playoff format was instituted in 1990.
He held his news conference more than an hour after the game, via teleconference.
“Nothing serious, just a little thing to look at with the trainers and a doctor,” Belichick said. “It’s no big deal. I don’t want to get into it.”
Asked if the trainers said he was OK, Belichick said, “I’ll be all right.”
Former Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes played at Gillette Stadium for the first time as a visitor, and said he heard from plenty of home fans before, during, and after the game. The dialogue wasn’t what you might think.
“A lot of fans showed me a lot of love,” said Spikes. “It was awesome.”
Spikes spent four seasons with the Patriots, but had an ugly end to his time here, being placed on injured reserve during last season’s playoffs, then publicly criticizing the move. He signed a one-year deal with Buffalo, so where he plays next season is uncertain.
“Honestly, I don’t know. When I get some time I’ll sit down with my agent and we’ll go from there,” Spikes said. “I do know that finishing with a winning record is awesome.”
“I just came down wrong on my foot, but I’m good,” LaFell said. “I limped off, but I went back in the next series.”
Left tackle Nate Solder suffered a knee injury late in the first half, appearing to get hurt on a play on which he was called for a holding penalty. Solder left the game, with the team initially saying his return was questionable, then downgrading him to out. He was not spotted on the sideline in the second half, nor in the postgame locker room.
Defensive lineman Sealver Siliga was slow to leave the field late in the fourth quarter, but he also told reporters he was OK.
“I was grateful just to be out there, so it was good,” Boyce said. “It was [a long stretch], but I got better in the process, going against Revis and those guys, and I guess they felt like I was ready to play.”
Boyce appeared in nine games last season after being drafted in the fourth round, and finished his rookie year with nine receptions. He didn’t have a pass thrown his way against the Bills, but that didn’t seem to bother Boyce.
“They just told me to be ready,” he said. “I got out there, so I’m happy.”