Saturday, December 26, 2015

To Rest Or Not To Rest? Patriots Have Decisions To Make in Advance Of Playoffs

To rest or not to rest, that is the question.

Besides armature bloggers plagiarizing the works of famous 17th century poets, there remains a modern day question of whether the talisman of football masterpieces - the great Bill Belichick - has any designs on resting his starters and injured players in the final two weeks of the regular season, having already secured at least the second seed in the American Football Conference.

Of course, having the second seed in the conference assures the Patriots of a first round bye, meaning that they do not participate in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, but will be watching intently as they are guaranteed to host the highest remaining seed surviving the initial knock-out round - a fairly lofty achievement given their injuries this season, but certainly not the pinnacle of conference play...

...that would be securing the top seed, and with it a first round bye, a guaranteed hosting of the lowest remaining seed from Wild Card weekend and homefield advantage in the AFC Championship game, should they prevail in the Divisional round.

Obviously, having the top seed in the conference is important, but it isn't essential for winning out and making it to the Super Bowl, as the following chronology will attest:

2001 - 2nd seed, beat Oakland in Divisional round and Pittsburgh in the AFC Title game, then beat St. Louis in the Super Bowl

2003 - 1st seed, beat Tennessee in Divisional round, beat Indianapolis in AFC Title game, then beat Carolina in the Super Bowl

2004 - 2nd seed, beat Indianapolis in Divisional round, beat Pittsburgh in AFC Title game, then beat Philadelphia in the Super Bowl

2005 - 4th seed, beat Jacksonville in Wild Card round, lost to Denver in Divisional round

2006 - 4th seed, beat NY Jets in Wild Card round, beat San Diego Chargers in Divisional round, lost to Indianapolis in AFC Title game

2007 - 1st seed, beat Jacksonville in Divisional round, beat San Diego in AFC Title game, lost to NY Giants in Super Bowl

2009 - 3rd seed, lost to Baltimore in Wild Card round

2010 - 1st seed, lost to NY Jets in Wild Card round

2011 - 1st seed, beat Denver in Divisional round, beat Baltimore in AFC Title game, lost to NY Giants in Super Bowl

2012 - 2nd seed, beat Houston in Divisional round, lost to Baltimore in AFC Title game

2013 - 2nd seed, beat Indianapolis in divisional round, lost to Denver in AFC Title game

2014 - 1st seed, beat Baltimore in Divisional round, beat Indianapolis in AFC Title Game, beat Seattle in Super Bowl

For those keeping score, as the first seed under Belichick, the Patriots have advanced to the Super Bowl four times and falling short just once, while as the second seed they are 2-2, and any thing lower than that, they are 0-3 - so as far as the difference between gaining the first seed instead of settling for the second seed, there really isn't that much of a difference, historically.

The Patriots need only to win one of their last two games to secure the top seed in the conference, but would also gain as much with one Cincinnati Bengals' loss in their final two games. There is no combination of wins and losses to be had - and it's pretty well cut and dried. New England has road trips to New York to play the Jets on Sunday, then to Miami to take on the Dolphins next Sunday...

...while the Bengals must travel to Denver for a Monday night affair, but then get to return home to host the lowly Baltimore Ravens to finish out their season. With health, the Bengals have enough to win both of their final two games - but their top quarterback, Andy Dalton, is out for the rest of the regular season with a fractured thumb.

Problem is, both teams they are facing have back up quarterbacks playing as well, Brock Osweiler for the Broncos and Matt Schaub for the Ravens. The Broncos have played well defensively but are finding things difficult in the scoring department on offense, while the Ravens are train wreck on both sides of the ball.

So, it is no guarantee that either team will be able to beat the Bengals, even with A.J. McCarron holding down the fort until Dalton returns for the post-season, so it is most prudent for the Patriots to concentrate on their own business and not allow chance to dictate their destiny - that is, if they even care about their seeding at all.

And that's the real question here: the Patriots have suffered through a record-shattering string of games lost to injury this season, at one point depleting the potency of the offense to where their struggles were not enough to overcome poor special teams play, so that we're looking at a team that is currently 12-2 instead of being undefeated...

...a truly remarkable accomplishment considering the aforementioned injury woes, but with a solid defense that has achieved elite status, New England is in position to control their own destiny.

The best scenario for the Patriots would be to beat the Jets on Sunday to clinch the conference's top seed, then piece together a skeleton crew for the game at Miami, which would have no bearing on anything at all. That would essentially give Belichick's charges a full three weeks to lick their wounds and to fuel up the juggernaut for a Super Bowl run to defend their title.

On the flip-side, however, is the scenario in which the Patriots just go ahead and minimize the snap counts of the starters against the Jets and letting their fortunes rest on back ups, then wait and see what happens between the Bengals and Broncos on Monday night before deciding how to proceed against the Dolphins next Sunday - as it may turn out that resting starters against the Jets could give the Patriots' injured nearly a full calendar month to regain health, should Denver prevail over Cincinnati.

That is, of course, if Belichick even cares about securing the top seed in the conference - because right now his team is sitting pretty with the second seed, while everyone else is scrambling to either improve their seeding, or to even make the playoffs at all - and one of those teams, the Broncos, could actually miss the playoffs if they lose one more game.

So with so much riding on Monday night's game against the Bengals for the Broncos, perhaps it is in Belichick's best interest to take a wait-and-see approach to the top seed, then plan for Miami accordingly.

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