It’s pretty simple for the Patriots Sunday in the regular-season finale against the Dolphins: win and earn a first-round bye, lose and likely have to play on wild card weekend.
Speaking to the team in the locker room following Saturday’s win over the Bills, Bill Belichick made it seem like it will be treated like a playoff game.
“Look, this is very simple now: this was a playoff game, Miami is a playoff game,” he said, via Patriots.com. “If we beat Miami, then we get a bye. If we don’t, then we’ll be playing the next week. So it’s a playoff game.”
But, when the opponent is 4-11 and likely will have an eye on its offseason plans this week, should it really be treated like a playoff game?
Right up there with getting a win and clinching a first-round bye is coming out of the game injury-free and making sure key players are as healthy as possible for the postseason.
There are a number of important players currently a little banged up, most notably Julian Edelman, Marcus Cannon, Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty and even Tom Brady. Special care should be taken with these players this weekend given New England can beat Miami even if most of them do not play vital roles.
For players like Jones and McCourty, who have nagging groin injuries, it may be best for them to sit out altogether. Groin injuries aren’t good to begin with and even worse in late December with freezing temperatures. Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson and Joejuan Williams can handle things at corner to give them an extra week to get healthy.
Marcus Cannon left Saturday’s game with an ankle injury and did not return. His presence is vital in the postseason, so the team should be extra cautious with him playing this week, as well.
As for Brady and Edelman, they are not like the other players where the team can get by without them. They will need to play, but once a comfortable lead is built do not be surprised to see them leave the game. In Edelman’s case, it could also be like some past years with Rob Gronkowski where he played in these types of games, but wasn’t targeted. That likely cannot happen to the same degree with Edelman, but do not expect a double-digit target game.
With all that being said, the Patriots were in a similar position last season going into the final week and they did not hold back against the Jets. Brady threw the ball 33 times for 250 yards and four touchdowns. Despite winning 38-3 and even being ahead 28-3 going into the fourth quarter, Brady and the first-team offense played the entire game.
This just feels different than a year ago, though.
That team was in much better shape health-wise and deeper than they are this year. The Patriots need Edelman more than ever before and the Patriots are already testing their depth up front. They absolutely could not afford to lose Edelman and Cannon for the postseason. It wouldn’t have been good last year, but that team was much more capable of overcoming losses of key players than this one is.
Around the league, teams are having different approaches. The Ravens have come out and said they are resting their starters since the No. 1 seed has already been clinched, while the Texans say they will play their starters even though they are locked into the No. 4 seed.
While it won’t be the Jarrett Stidham, Damien Harris and Jakobi Meyers show Sunday, do not be surprised to see a much more conservative game than we’ve seen from Bill Belichick and the Patriots in recent memory.
The margin for error with this team is just too slim to risk potential injuries in a game against the Dolphins.