|The Patriots can't afford to lose Tom Brady, especially at this time of the year|
Fast forward to today, and the Patriots appear to be dealing with the same issues. Victory over the Miami Dolphins this weekend, while not convincing, was enough to guarantee the team a playoff spot. While it is a welcome sight to win the division after just 12 weeks, it also leaves the Patriots with trying to balance their injury depleted roster against the value of a higher playoff seeding.
By winning the division, the Patriots are guaranteed to be at least fourth in the seeding for the playoffs. However with the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens standing on the same record and the Houston Texans just two games out in front, Bill Belichick will feel that a first round bye is within the team's grasp. The Broncos and Ravens play each other before the end of the season, so the Patriots will be guaranteed to be at worst a third seed if they win out the rest of the season. Furthermore, the Patriots beat the Broncos earlier this season, so if the Ravens lose to the Broncos, and both the Broncos and Patriots have the same record to finish the season, the Patriots will be able to skip the wildcard round and earn homefield advantage for at least one game.
Even though the Texans are two games ahead with just four to play, the Patriots play them next Monday night and the Texans face games against teams all currently fighting for playoff spots the rest of the way. Having lost many key pieces to injury ahead of last season's playoffs also, the Texans will be more tempted than anyone to sit key starters at some point during the final quarter of the season.
Disregarding playoff seedings, first round byes or home-field advantages, the Patriots will still feel the need to play their starters the rest of the way in order to improve the quality of play on the field. Without key figures like Gronkowski, Chandler Jones, Logan Mankins and Julian Edelman, the Patriots need to continue to test and develop the less established players who will play bigger roles in their absences. Of course they could develop without playing other key players such as Tom Brady and Wes Welker, but that would hurt the team's chemistry once the playoffs begin.
The Patriots were flat on offense against the Dolphins on Sunday, while their defense was able to scrape by against a unit that isn't playoff worthy. If they don't improve on their execution before the beginning of the playoffs, it won't matter where they play games or how many they play, because they will lose in the first round against what is becoming a stacked AFC playoff picture. The benefits of playing in a weak division are obvious during the regular season, but the lack of stellar competition can make teams complacent at the most important time of the year.
Now of course all this is irrelevant if the Patriots start Tom Brady this weekend and he is lost for the year, or even Wes Welker at this point. Those calling for the Patriots to protect their most important players by sitting them have a point, even if it's one Belichick entertains reluctantly. One bad tackle to Brady, Welker, Vince Wilfork or even Devin McCourty could be one bad tackle too many for the team's Super Bowl potential.
Sitting those starters would probably cause them to lose rhythm and timing with each other, but that rhythm and timing shouldn't be a lost cause if they were brought back in at the end of the regular season, because the Patriots' key players are all veterans who know how to manage such situations.