The division title has been clinched, along with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and Pro Bowl slots have been announced. The only thing left for the Patriots to do this week is decide who will play in Sunday's season finale and for how long.
The age-old question comes up at least once a year when a team wraps up everything before the end of the season, and history suggests resting players for too long can cause a team to come out flat in its playoff opener.
As far as the Patriots are concerned, they rarely take their foot off the pedal -- even if the game is "meaningless" in regards to playoff seeding. Quarterback Tom Brady admitted this week he'd like to finish the season 14-2, which would tie for the second-best record he's had as a starter outside of his 16-0 season in 2007.
On the flip side, the Patriots have to consider what happened last year when wide receiver Wes Welker suffered a season-ending knee injury in an otherwise meaningless finale, but head coach Bill Belichick promises that won't factor into his decision on what to do this weekend.
"I think you take into consideration all the information that you have and do the best you can with it," Belichick said. "Whatever we have to work with over current (or) previous experiences and so forth -- it could be a long list of things -- but in the end, you take it all and put it together and do what you feel like is best for everyone: individually, collectively as a team and all that. Sometimes those aren't necessarily consistent or they run (at) some type of conflict and then you try to make a decision and resolve it the best you can."
Given the choice, the players would certainly volunteer to suit up regardless of the significance of Sunday's game. In 2004, the Patriots finished 2004 and had everything sewn up before the season finale against San Francisco. Nonetheless, Brady started and attempted 30 passes in a 21-7 win before exiting well into the fourth quarter.
So, if history is any indication, expect to see everyone on the field Sunday unless the player in question is suffering from an injury that would otherwise prohibit him from playing. The beauty of having home-field already wrapped up is the Patriots can give their ailing players an extra week to heal Sunday without fearing the repercussions and use the game as a way to keep the healthy players fresh.
The truth is hardly anyone outside of New England's locker room thought the team would be in this envious position before the season began. The Patriots entered 2010 with a ton of question marks, particularly on defense, and struggled enough early on to elicit some concern as to whether or not they'd have to fight until the end to clinch a playoff spot.
As it turns out, the team caught fire following a loss to Cleveland on Nov. 7 and hasn't lost since, displaying a remarkable ability to force turnovers and protect the ball on their own end along the way.
"I don't think anyone realized how it would go," Brady said. "There's still been a lot of transition over the course of season, with Laurence (Maroney) gone, Kevin (Faulk getting injured), Randy (Moss) traded, getting Deion (Branch), adding Danny Woodhead. Back on September 5, I'm not sure what I was thinking, but I know that in mini-camp and preseason, I thought we'd have a really good team. Everyone works hard, no one is bitching and complaining -- it's a really hard-working team."
With all the minutiae out of the way, it's onto the next challenge, which is facing a Miami team that has been tough on the road and has already beaten the Jets in New York -- something the Patriots failed to do. Regardless of the significance, the Patriots appear to be in this to win, so don't be surprised if you see all the usual faces on the field come Sunday afternoon.
"(We) split with them the past two seasons with coach (Tony) Sparano down there, so this will be tough," Belichick said. "We've got to turn it around here and get ready for another division game (and) a team that we haven't played in a while now. So, we've got to re-familiarize ourselves with the Dolphins. Even though there are a lot of the same faces, things are a little different than they were a couple months ago when we went down to Miami."
SERIES HISTORY: 88th regular-season meeting. Dolphins lead series, 49-38. Including the postseason, Miami leads the, 50-40, but the Patriots have won 11 of the last 16 games. New England is 12-9 against the Dolphins since Bill Belichick began coaching the team in 2000, but has had the upper hand historically at home with a 26-17 record in games played in New England. The two teams split last year with the Patriots winning at home and losing in Miami. They'll attempt to sweep this year's series for the first time since 2007. The two teams have split in five of the last six seasons.
--Since 2001, the Patriots are 47-14 against the AFC East with half of those losses (7) coming to Miami. On Sunday, the Patriots will attempt to sweep Miami for the first time in three years. Conversely, the Patriots have not been swept by a divisional foe since 2000 when they lost both games to the Jets in Bill Belichick's first season as head coach.
200 Is The Magic Number
The Patriots finished with 217 rushing yards Sunday against Buffalo and cracked the 200-yard mark twice this season against the Bills.
Last year, they had two 200-yard rushing games against separate teams (Denver and Oakland). They've accomplished this feat in the same season 14 times in franchise history.
Recovering Fumbles Is The Game
The Patriots also tied a team record this past weekend with four fumble recoveries against Buffalo. This was only the third time in team history they've done so, with the last time coming in 2003 against Philadelphia. The Patriots also recovered four fumbles against the Indianapolis Colts in October of 1996.
QB Tom Brady broke Bernie Kosar's NFL record by attempting his 319th consecutive pass without an interception this past weekend in Buffalo. Brady hasn't thrown a pick since heaving a Hail Mary pass against Baltimore in October.
"I think as much as everyone points at me for that, so much goes into what we're doing offensively with protection from the offensive line. I'm never forced into rushing throws," Brady said. "We've also been ahead in a lot of games so I don't have to try to jam balls into tight spot areas that you would if you were really desperate in the second half, trying to get back. The receivers have done a great job of securing the catches. There's a lot that goes into it."
Pro Bowl Honors
CB Devin McCourty, OL Logan Mankins, S Brandon Meriweather, LB Jerod Mayo, NT Vince Wilfork and Brady were selected to the 2010 AFC Pro Bowl roster.
Mankins made it despite playing in only seven games thus far.
"I'm happy for those players. They've all had good seasons," Belichick said. "We have a lot of players on our team that have had good seasons. I appreciate what everybody does. I think we're all here for the same goal."
Key To Success On The Road
With Sunday's win in Buffalo, the Patriots finished the 2010 season with a 6-2 road record -- a stark contrast to last year's woeful 2-6 mark away from Foxborough.
This year's road record was the team's best since 2007 when it won all eight games outside of New England. The Patriots are currently 7-0 at home and have not lost a regular-season game at Gillette Stadium since 2008. They'll have home-field advantage throughout this year's postseason.
Cleveland Changed Everything
One of the biggest keys to the team's turnaround since the Nov. 7 loss to Cleveland has been ball security. The Patriots have limited their turnovers while forcing a plethora of turnovers defensively. In the last seven games, they've become the first team in NFL history to score 30 or more points in each game without committing a single turnover.
"I think our players have taken a considerable amount of ownership," director of player personnel Nick Cesario said. "They understand the importance of ball security and ball possession, whether it's their technique, how they're carrying the football and those types of things. And it's something that our coaches, offensively, we preach to the players and they take ownership and vice versa. We've been able to get it off the opponents defensively, and really, it has an impact on the game and how it goes."
BY THE NUMBERS: 12 -- Number of rushing touchdowns in 2010 for RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, establishing a new career high. His previous best was five, set in 2008 as a rookie.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Most Valuable Player in a team sport really doesn't make a lot of sense. I can understand most valuable golfer or something like that. ... The only award I care about is a Super Bowl ring." -- QB Tom Brady on being the front-runner for the 2010 NFL MVP award.