By: Bob George/BosSports.net
December 29, 2010

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Who could figure that a meaningless regular season finale against Miami at home might turn out to be the most important game of the regular season?

On the one hand, you have the prospect of the Patriots becoming stale for their first playoff game, which will come on the second weekend of January. How will the regulars react to having not played in two weeks? Might a team like Indianapolis or the Jets catch the Patriots at less than their best because of the long rest?

And then, on the other hand, you have Wes Welker.

A year ago at this time, the Patriots had a similar situation: a meaningless regular season finale with their playoff situation locked in. The Patriots travelled to Houston, blew a fourth quarter lead and lost, 34-27, but got the three seed anyway after Cincinnati lost to the Jets in a game most everyone thought the Bengals wanted to lose. The game was marked by Welker blowing out his knee on a cut move without being hit, his season coming to an end suddenly. But in a larger sense, the subject of the obligation teams have to paying customers to always play to win came up, overshadowing Welker's injury and other subplots.

A year ago, this column examined this problem in the postgame report. Welker's horrific knee injury, which some thought was career-threatening, seemed to be a footnote compared to what seemingly was a larger issue, that being league integrity. Patriot Nation was aghast over the loss of Welker, perhaps the league's best wide receiver. But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was aghast over the number of teams not playing to win by resting regulars in meaningless games. Bill Belichick came under fire for playing Welker in a game he really should not have played in, but probably would have come under league fire for not playing him at all, as well as all key Patriot players.

In his private thoughts, it is probably a good assumption that Belichick could care less about how Goodell or the league feels about how he runs his team. SpyGate makes that claim more factual and less conjecture. Whatever Belichick decides to do about getting his team ready for the playoffs, he will do exactly what he thinks is right for his team, not for the league. Publicly, he will say a whole lot of nothing to appease Goodell and the league, just like he says a whole lot of nothing about his team to the local and national media.

So, in his approach to Sunday's meaningless game against Miami, let's assume that any consideration given to winning the game is completely irrelevant in the mind of Belichick. There are two things Belichick will try and accomplish: preparing his team for an unknown Divisional round opponent, and minimizing, if not eradicating, the prospect of losing key players to injury, like Welker last year.

Now, if you were Belichick, how would you handle Sunday?

Everyone is weighing in with their opinions. Play them all. Play them for two series. Treat the game like Week 2 in August. Play them all except Tom Brady, who knows how to win a Super Bowl better than any other player on the team. Work on certain situations that may come up in the playoffs, especially against the Colts. Work on different people packages (as Bill Parcells liked to call them).

But what if Belichick prefers not to put his best players in harm's way? What if Belichick still has nightmares over Welker in Houston last year?

Many observers believe that Welker's absence in the playoff loss to Baltimore was the key ingredient in the Ravens winning the game. Of course, Welker had nothing to do with not stopping Ray Rice or Joe Flacco. But the defense was able to tee off on Brady without any fear of having to deal with Welker. The injury was the most damaging to the Patriots since Brady had his knee blown out in the 2008 season opener against Kansas City. Very few experts gave Baltimore a chance to win that game, and they wound up blowing the Patriots out of the water. So, injury risk will come into the thinking of Belichick as he prepares for Sunday's game.

As for the paying customers at Gillette Stadium, how will they react if Belichick pulls all the starters after only one or two series?

For the many fans who go to every game, they may not be too angry if the Patriots tank the game. They'll be there in two weeks, hopefully in the worst weather conditions possible. What these fans, mostly season ticket holders, will probably do is treat the game as a celebration of the season and just have a great time. Assuming that the fans behave themselves, the celebration should be fun as long as everyone has their sights on what lies ahead.

But if you're an occasional visitor to Gillette Stadium, your first visit in several years, or perhaps your first time ever, you might be disappointed. You might even think you wasted your money. If Belichick chooses to rest his key players and places a low priority in winning the game, and the game turns out to be devoid of any excitement (Doug Flutie won't be there to attempt any drop kick), it would be understandable if you the first time visitor to Gillette Stadium would not be happy.

Here then is how this writer would handle it.

The Week 2 in August plan seems to be a good way to balance the two issues. The regulars should play either two series or one quarter, whichever comes last. Put the starters in just for some routine reps and run some vanilla stuff. If you work on anything that might be used later on, confine it to low risk things which might help the Patriots in a possible matchup later on against Indianapolis. Brady should be limited to easy, quick release patterns without any regard to his interception streak. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead should be handled carefully, work on hitting holes between the tackles and nothing that goes outside which might require cutbacks.

As for Welker and other receivers, tell them to be careful and fall down instead of making cuts for more yardage. Nothing over the middle should be thrown, keep it to safe flat passes and sideline tosses. Tell them to forget about extra yards after the catch and save it for later in January.

As for the defense, a good rule of thumb is to make sure that nobody, but nobody, dishes out any big sticks. Any suspendable hit in a meaningless game like this is beyond stupid. Otherwise, nothing fancy schematically should be employed, just get them some reps out there, get some easy hits, and get off the field. If Miami happens to Wildcat them to death, so be it. Let them get their hay, a Super Bowl win in February will render a blowout loss in this game completely forgotten quicker than you can say "torn ACL".

If you happen to be someone attending Gillette Stadium for the first time this weekend, shut up and enjoy yourself. Go get a drink and raise your glass to the best team in the AFC this regular season. Then make plans to come back again sometime.

But most of all, shut up. Unless Brian Hoyer throws a touchdown bomb to Brandon Tate or something like that.


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