FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots won Sunday. In blowout fashion, even.
No, not on the scoreboard. Officially, they lost to Buffalo, 17-9, the Bills’ first win in Foxborough since 2000. That was Bill Belichick’s first season with the Patriots and pre-dates Gillette Stadium, which opened in 2002.
But the score didn’t matter. The Patriots already had locked up the No. 1 seed, a first-round bye, and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs before opening kickoff.
Only two things mattered Sunday: staying healthy and getting the backups some much-needed work. And the Patriots aced the test on both fronts.
Belichick wasn’t taking any chances, perhaps spooked by Wes Welker’s torn ACL in the 2009 regular-season finale. He sat Rob Gronkowski, who was healthy for an entire regular season for the first time since 2011. Now we’ll finally know how dangerous the Patriots can be in the playoffs with a healthy Gronk.
The coach sat any player who had even the faintest injury: Dont’a Hightower and his shoulder injury, even though he played last week; Julian Edelman and the concussion he suffered two weeks ago; Dan Connolly and the knee injury he suffered two weeks ago; Jonas Gray and the sprained ankle he suffered last week, even though he was able to later return to that game; Brandon Browner and the groin injury he suffered in practice last week; Sebastian Vollmer and the back injury he suffered in Friday’s practice.
Kyle Arrington was active and in uniform in case of emergency, but he missed last week’s game with a hamstring injury and was the only active Patriots player not to enter the game on Sunday.
And many of those who did play — including Tom Brady, Darrelle Revis, and Chandler Jones — came out after halftime.
Fans can complain that the offense needed one last crisp performance entering the playoffs, and the offensive line needed work, but nothing that happened Sunday will have an effect on the Patriots’ next game two weeks from now.
“We understand what the playoffs are, so I don’t think if we’d have won, it would’ve been any different,” safety Devin McCourty said. “I don’t really believe that you can get bad habits in football. I think everything is all about preparation each week. You do everything great one week, it doesn’t mean next week you create good habits and it will happen again. We’ll have to regroup, get a good week of practice coming up, and then go from there.”
So yes, Sunday’s game was a blowout win for the Patriots. It would have been a shutout, except left tackle Nate Solder left at halftime with a knee injury and Brandon LaFell suffered a minor foot injury, though he later returned to the game and appeared OK. If Solder’s injury turns out to be serious, the outcome of Sunday’s game will be assessed differently. More likely, the Patriots were just being cautious.
For now, Sunday’s game can only be viewed as a positive. The Patriots have all of their star players healthy for the stretch run, and now get a first-round bye to heal all of their nicks and bruises.
“That’s a huge thing there, just getting an extra week to recover,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “I’m going to relax and sit in hot/cold tubs, massage, get my body back, find out who we play and go.”
Patriots fans love to point out that their team has historically been successful playing their starters in Week 17, while Peyton Manning and the Colts choked in the playoffs because they took Week 17 off. And some of the Patriots aren’t thrilled about having a bye next week.
“Honestly, if I could play, I would want to play,” Jones said. “But it will be good for our team and it will be good for some self-scouting, personally, see what I can work on going into the playoffs.”
The whole momentum thing is bunk. Belichick loves to preach that what happens one week has no effect on the next, and he’s right. The Patriots’ loss to the Bills will have no bearing on their next game. Nor will their big blowout wins from October and November.
They have an extra week off, anyway, so whatever momentum they would have gained will be nullified.
“Nothing that we’ve done this past season is going to help us in two weeks from now,” Brady said. “What’s going to matter is how well we prepare this week and how well we prepare next week and how ready we are to go whenever we play. I’m not worried about us lacking confidence going out there and executing.”
Sunday’s game was preseason football at its finest. Danny Amendola, Brian Tyms, Brandon Bolden, Josh Kline, Malcolm Butler, Duron Harmon, and Tavon Wilson all took significant snaps.
The Patriots hope they won’t be needed much in the playoffs. But at least those players have a little more game action under their belts now.
“We have some guys that have played a lot of football for us, and we felt like today would be an opportunity for us to have some guys who haven’t played as much to get an opportunity to play,” Belichick said afterward. “That’s kind of the way we managed the team. We tried to create opportunities for some guys that the experience I think will benefit them going forward.”
So Sunday’s win was about perspective. Keep Gronk and the superstars healthy? Check. Get some reps for the backups? Check.
Win the game? That wasn’t very high on the list of priorities.