By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 04, 2010

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HOUSTON -- Sooner or later, Roger Goodell will come up with something to guard against teams tanking late season games when they either don't benefit by winning or benefit by losing.

The only thing the Patriots really lost on Sunday was maybe the best wideout in the league, and the effects from that injury may be far reaching. Losing the game to the Houston Texans, 34-27 by gagging up three fourth quarter touchdowns to the Texans meant nothing thanks to Cincinnati losing on Sunday evening to the Jets. The Patriots got the three seed, get the Baltimore Ravens at Foxborough next Sunday, then a trip to San Diego if they can overcome the Ravens at home like they did in October.

The frightening sight of Wes Welker blowing out his knee in the first quarter may render all playoff positioning totally moot. Yes, the Patriots can host the AFC Championship Game if both Indianapolis and San Diego choke in the second round. But Welker's injury adds fuel to the debate over playing star players in meaningless games.

According to Sports Illustrated's Peter King, Goodell is "angry" over teams who obviously don't play to win when they don't have to. Goodell has a good gripe when paying customers are gypped out of good football when they see an August performance in December. But then you look at Welker, and now Bill Belichick has to answer for why Welker was in there.

Not that he will. Belichick had to use the sentence "We have no updates!" or variations thereof several times in his postgame presser. Belichick will not take any responsibility for Welker getting hurt, nor should he. But at some point Goodell will need to take this injury into account before he goes into an owners meeting or a competition committee meeting and demands some sort of punishment or adverse consequence for any team which obviously does not play to win in a game they don't need to win or don't want to win.

Welker aside, the Patriots once again showed a lousy propensity for not closing out road wins. The Patriots at one point led 27-13 in the fourth quarter. But Matt Schaub fired a touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, then two touchdown runs by Arian Foster gave the Texans the win and the first winning season in franchise history. It nearly gave them their first playoff berth in franchise history, but the Jets took care of all that by clobbering the Bengals Sunday night, 37-0. The Patriots were left with another road loss, but with Cincinnati losing, earned them the three seed and a trip to San Diego if they can get by Baltimore at home next week.

If Goodell wants to try and legislate how teams handle meaningless games, he can start with both the Patriots and the Bengals. You can make the case that neither team, especially the Patriots, wanted to win the game or did not try to win the game. It could be that the Patriots preferred to play the Jets in the first round, but instead will draw a much tougher Ravens team who nearly beat them at Gillette Stadium in Week 4.

You can stress out over the Patriots blowing another lead, but some things don't add up. Brian Hoyer came in in the second quarter with the game still close, but Tom Brady returned after halftime. Then with the Patriots down by 7 with two minutes left and all three timeouts still intact, Hoyer came in to try and pull off the win, not Brady. All during the game, Shawn Springs was covering Andre Johnson, but in the fourth quarter it was Jonathan Willhite on Johnson, and Schaub picked on Willhite like crazy. Finally, the Texans were doing more to beat themselves all game long thanks to lousy placekicking and a pick-six by Darius Butler, showed a ton of immaturity in a game they desperately needed to win, yet the Patriots still allowed them to rally in the end.

Cincinnati was even worse. Knowing the Patriots had strength of victory clinched thanks to Buffalo and Carolina winning (both wins over one seeds), the Bengals decided to basically play soft against the Jets, showed them nothing to speak of, and played the game for next week, when the teams meet in a rematch at Paul Brown Stadium. Of the four Wild Card games next week, three of them are rematches from this week. Only the Bengals and Jets switch venues, so the Bengals get the home game next week, which will be a huge advantage to the Bengals.

Had the Bengals won, they would have drawn Houston at home. Despite facing long odds anyway against a Jet team needing to win or else in the final game in Giants Stadium history, it seems that Cincinnati preferred to play the Jets next week. So since a near-certain Bengal loss meant that the Patriots win the tiebreaker anyway, it gave Belichick even less of an incentive to win their game against Houston.

Which brings us back to the question of Welker versus the importance of competitive balance and integrity.

You can clearly see that both Cincinnati and New England didn't need to win. The Patriots paid the ultimate price by losing their top wide receiver, and maybe their top offensive weapon (you can ask Brady if he agrees with this). Most every Patriot veteran wanted to play. If Belichick had done a complete flop and played nothing but junior varsity, they still get the three seed and Baltimore at home next week, but they get a healthy Welker instead of one who, according to sources, tore both his ACL and MCL and is lost for the season.

But what of the obligation to paying customers? And what of the obligation to teams like Pittsburgh, who needed both the Patriots and the Bengals to play to win? You can condemn and dismiss Pittsburgh for complaining if you like, but if the shoe was on the other foot (and the Patriot 2008 season finished almost the same way), you can bet that Bob Kraft would be bending Goodell's ear but good.

The real problem is that you cannot legislate this sort of thing. It happens in baseball all the time. If you've made plans to go to Fenway Park and you get to see the Sox in late September after all the playoff spots have been clinched, you probably won't complain too much if all your Sox faves don't play and the stars of the future do. The NBA came up with this dumb idea called the Draft Lottery to deal with this sort of thing, and to this day it is still a dumb idea (Tim Duncan could have been a Celtic if there had been no Draft Lottery). In football, if you go to a game and one or both of the teams has no incentive to win, it's simply a case of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). The Patriots should simply get ready for the playoffs the best way they can, never you mind how they do it. If teams are depending upon you to win to help them, it's their fault for needing help and not controlling their own destiny.

Let the integrity problems be hanged. The Patriots have a king-sized problem with Welker out for the duration. All the advance planning and playoff posturing won't make Welker better. The Patriots wounded their Super Bowl chances by playing Welker, and no consequence came of them losing to Houston otherwise. It was an accident, of course, but if Belichick could have Sunday back, would he sit Welker, Brady, Randy Moss, and a whole bunch of other starters?

Meanwhile, here's to the good health of Julian Edelman. Looks like the Patriots will go as far in the playoffs as Edelman and the defense will let them.


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