Shhhh! Don't tell the Patriots that their season finale against the woeful 2-13 San Francisco 49ers is meaningless. They're not hearing it. They're not playing that game.
So what if this Sunday's 1 p.m. season finale at Gillette Stadium has no bearing on the playoffs? So what if the Patriots are locked in as the AFC's No. 2 seed and the 49ers will pick first next April? If they're playing the game, it must have meaning.
Not really. But Bill Belichick doesn't go there. He knows that while his team may have played its best game of the season last week against the Jets, December has been an up-and-down month for his club and he'd like to start January off on the right foot.
"I want to get everybody ready to go and get our team playing its best football in January, not have it going the other way," Belichick said. "This week is as normal as can be. We'll have 45 guys who need to be ready to play if we even have 45 healthy ones."
That's the way Belichick is approaching the finale. He is not breaking down any playing time plans publicly or for his players, whom he is imploring to prepare as hard as they do for any other week. That is what they are doing even though they know in the back of their minds that the outcome is irrelevant.
"We always play it one game at a time and it's another one we have to play," guard Joe Andruzzi said. "It's far from meaningless. We have to go out and play well and get ready to play well in the playoffs. The preparation hasn't changed. It's another game on our road. You don't want to go out on a downer, but on a good note. That's what we hope to do."
But they will hope to do it while resting some players who are banged up or worn down, of which there are plenty. Certainly the regular starters, or those who are healthy, will start this week's game, but their production and the score may determine their playing time.
The Patriots laid an egg two weeks ago in Miami and didn't play all that well the week prior vs. Cincinnati. So even with a strong performance last week, Belichick wants to see his front line players execute well before relegating them to baseball caps.
One of the Patriots' two losses this season came to a team, Miami, that is 3-12, so it's not as if the 49ers' 2-13 record will cause a Patriots lapse. But even Belichick knows the result this week is secondary to keeping front line players healthy even if he won't discuss the issue and give his team an excuse to ease up.
But with only 45 active players, it's not as if he can just throw 22 new starters into action. The remaining healthy players in the banged up defensive backfield have to play. At least two and possibly three of the offensive linemen will go wire to wire. Sure, quarterback Rohan Davey will see extended action along with running back Cedric Cobbs. Tully Banta-Cain, Eric Alexander and perhaps Ethan Kelley and Marquise Hill will see some decent time on the defensive side of the ball. But it's not as if the regulars will sit out the game altogether.
"It's very important for us to play well going into the playoffs," linebacker Willie McGinest said. "Their record doesn't mean anything. Their team is going to be ready to play and will fight. They have some young guys and some things haven't gone their way, but they're auditioning for jobs. We have to prepare as we normally do."
If they're listening to Belichick, they have to prepare even harder this week because they are facing a team they haven't played in five years and one with which they are not familiar.
"We have to put a lot more time into knowing our opponent this week," Belichick said. "We are not familiar with their personnel. We have not played this team since I've been here."
That may be true, but the Patriots might find their time is better spent breaking down a Colts team that is likely to pay a mid-January visit to Foxborough. In that regard, they should treat Sunday's game against the 49ers like a preseason game even if many starters have to play longer than they might have if the rosters were expanded to preseason levels.
SERIES HISTORY: 10th meeting. 49ers lead series 7-2. The teams have met just three times since 1990 with San Francisco winning two and the Patriots taking the last meeting back in 1998 by a 24-21 score at Foxboro Stadium. The Patriots have never lost a regular season game played in January, posting a 4-0 record.
The Patriots counted on several rookies during last year's championship run. Dan Koppen started at center while Eugene Wilson locked down the starting safety job. Others like Asante Samuel, Ty Warren, Bethel Johnson and Tully Banta-Cain all contributed. This year, only two rookies are making significant contributions as the playoffs near - first round pick Vince Wilfork and undrafted free agent Randall Gay.
"They've done a good job," coach Bill Belichick said. "They started at different points and ended at a similar point. Both have contributed a lot for us. Vince has played since Day 1 while Randall has taken advantage of his opportunities."
Wilfork, a defensive lineman, has played in all 15 games with six starts and is third among Patriots linemen with 51 tackles to go with two sacks and two fumble recoveries. Gay, a defensive back, has played in 14 games with eight starts and has 33 tackles, two interceptions, six passes defensed and two fumble recoveries.
"He's done good," linebacker Willie McGinest said of Wilfork's play. "He's still learning and has a long way to go, but he's advanced for a first-year guy. He's strong and can make plays. He's getting better every day and he's helped us this season."
Wilfork may have to take on an increased role in January depending on the health of Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who injured his knee last week against the Jets. The rookie has played both on the nose and at end in the Patriots' 3-4 scheme this season and would likely see more time at end if Seymour can't play, which he is not expected to this week against the 49ers. Jarvis Green would also pick up some of the slack there.
"I don't know," Belichick answered when asked if Seymour would be able to play in the playoff opener. "We're not in January yet. He's working hard to get better. We'll take it day to day."
Asked if there was a chance Seymour would be declared out for the year, Belichick responded, "We're definitely not there."
- RB Corey Dillon is just 81 yards shy of reaching the final incentive in
his contract, a $375,000 boost, but he isn't likely to play long enough this
week to reach the required 1,600 yards, especially considering that he's been
banged up for most of the season with a thigh ailment that forced him out
of one game this year.
Dillon surpassed Curtis Martin last week as the Patriots single-season rushing leader and has established a new mark of 1,519 yards with one game left to play.
"It's not something I set out to do," Dillon said. "To be mentioned along with Curtis Martin is an honor. But I'm not going for an incentive this week. I'm preparing like I have all year and whatever happens happens."
The Patriots cannot hand Dillon the final $375,000 under the premise that he would have achieved it if given the playing time in the season finale because NFL rules prohibit the practice. But that's also a bad precedent to set and one the team would likely want to avoid, especially if other players who see reduced time this weekend are close to reaching incentives in their contracts. If Dillon does reach 1,600 yards, he would earn all of the $2.25 million in incentives that were also tied to the team winning 11 games.
- Shaws Supermarket representatives were on hand Wednesday at Gillette Stadium
to present Troy Brown with the Patriots 12th Player Award, given annually
to the Patriots player who personifies the Patriots team spirit and is recognized
for his contributions to the team, both on and off the field. It is voted
on by fans who fill out a ballot in Shaws Supermarkets or in the circular
delivered to homes throughout New England.
Brown, 33, has played significant roles on offense, defense and special teams for the Patriots, but his play at cornerback, where he has three interceptions, has garnered national attention. For Brown, it is merely about helping the team win in any manner asked.
"The best way to be a champion is to be unselfish," Brown said after receiving the award.
The 12-year veteran ranks near the top of most Patriots receiving and punt return records, but earned his first taste of defensive football back on Nov. 7 when injuries at defensive back precipitated the move. While he has hardly shined as a slot defender, he has played well enough for the Patriots to win and he has made some big plays.
"I'm not surprised," teammate Willie McGinest said. "Troy is a great athlete. He's done so much for so long without the deserved recognition. I'm glad he's getting some now. He should've gotten an award a long time ago because he's made so many clutch plays over the years. We appreciate him in here, that's for sure.
- Including this season, the Patriots have earned a first round playoff bye
in three of the last four seasons. Since the bye was instituted in its current
format in 1990, the Patriots have earned it four times and have advanced to
the Super Bowl each of the previous three times they received the bye (1996,
2001, 2003). Only the Steelers have earned the bye more times (6) than New
England (4) since 1990.
- With a win this week, the Patriots would tie the best regular-season record
in NFL history by a defending Super Bowl champion and would finish 14-2 for
the second straight season. Five other teams have followed up a Super Bowl
title with a 14-win season and two of those five repeated as champions - the
1998 Broncos and the 1989 49ers.
- New England can finish its second straight season with an undefeated home record with a win this weekend. From 1960-2002, the Patriots never went undefeated at home, but went 8-0 last season and enter this weekend with a 7-0 mark. The Patriots are 22-3 at Gillette Stadium since it opened in 2002 and have won 18 straight regular season and postseason games at home.
BY THE NUMBERS: 20 - the number of seasons since the Patriots averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry as a team, dating back to the 1985 team's 4.1 yards per carry average. The Patriots are averaging 4.0 heading into the season finale.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "All my best friends are still 49ers fans. My aunts and uncles are 49ers fans. I think my parents are ... actually my parents aren't 49ers fans anymore." - QB Tom Brady, who hails from San Mateo, Calif., outside of San Francisco and who grew up a 49ers fan.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Je'Rod Cherry didn't stay unemployed for very long. The Patriots re-signed one of their top special teams players on Wednesday after releasing defensive back Omare Lowe and re-signing him to the practice squad.
Lowe has now been signed to the roster each of the last two weeks and released following each game. Cherry injured his ankle against Miami, but was listed as probable before the Jets game before being let go because the Patriots needed his roster spot likely for a healthy defensive back. He was not picked up after being let go late last week and re-joined team in time for Wednesday's practice.
The Patriots might use Cherry and a bunch of other players who generally see their primary action in the kicking game in offensive and defensive situations this week as they look to rest up and prepare for the postseason. Tully Banta-Cain and Eric Alexander will likely both see time at outside linebacker when the coaches relieve Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel and possibly Rosevelt Colvin of their duties for the day.
Expect Jed Weaver to see more extensive time at tight end while Rohan Davey sees action at quarterback and Cedric Cobbs gets plenty of touches at running back. The wide receivers will all play, but Kevin Kasper may get some opportunities this week as players like Deion Branch, David Patten and David Givens see limited duty.
Rookie defensive lineman Marquise Hill has been active twice this year, but has yet to play in a game and there is a good bet he sees action Sunday along with second-year nose tackle Ethan Kelley. It'll be that kind of day for the Patriots with bodies shuffling in and out. All 45 active players can expect to see playing time on regular downs.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
- S Dexter Reid missed practice Wednesday with a shoulder injury and is doubtful
for Sunday's game against the 49ers. Reid has missed each of the last two
- DE Richard Seymour also missed Wednesday's practice with a knee injury and
is doubtful for Sunday. Coach Bill Belichick has declared him day to day moving
forward. He is not walking with the aid of crutches.
- LB Matt Chatham continues to deal with a hamstring injury that has forced
him to miss 10 games this season. He didn't practice Wednesday and isn't likely
to return this week. He's listed as questionable.
- RB Kevin Faulk's knee injury that kept him out last week against the Jets
is likely to keep him out this week as well, but he remains questionable.
There is no reason for him to risk anything with the bye week to follow the
game. He missed practice Wednesday.
- CB Randall Gay missed last week's game with the flu, but is still bothered
by an arm injury that forced him to miss a portion of practice Wednesday.
Gay is expected to return to action this week, but is questionable on the
- WR David Givens also missed a portion of practice with an ankle injury,
but should be able to play this week just as he has in each of the last two.
He started last week against the Jets despite missing some practice time leading
up to the game.
- TE Daniel Graham missed a portion of practice with the rib injury that kept
him out of the Dec. 12 Bengals game. He is likely to play this week as he
has each of the last two, but might see his reps limited in a meaningless
- WR Bethel Johnson remained out for portions of practice Wednesday with a
thigh injury that continues to bother him. He has a chance to play this week,
but the Patriots might rest him to make sure they have their explosive kickoff
returner available for the playoffs.
- CB Ty Law missed a portion of Wednesday's practice and has a chance to play
some this week. He has been out since breaking his foot on Oct. 31 and the
coaches would like to see him play some before the playoffs begin.
- CB Earthwind Moreland missed at least a portion of Wednesday's practice
with an abdomen injury. He did not appear to be in much pain after last week's
game against the Jets when he addressed the media and he will likely be available
this week as well.
- FB Patrick Pass missed practice Wednesday after injuring his knee against
the Jets. He didn't finish last week's game and while he is listed as questionable,
he will probably sit this one out.
- CB Asante Samuel remains questionable with a shoulder injury that kept him
out of three games this season. He has started each of the last three games,
but sat out some of practice Wednesday as the coaches try to manage his injury.
- S Eugene Wilson left the Jets game briefly with a thigh injury and is questionable
for the 49ers game after missing some of practice. His injury isn't serious
and he should play this week even if only for a short time. He missed only
part of one series after getting hurt last week.
- QB Tom Brady remains probable with a shoulder injury.
- QB Jim Miller remains probable with a shoulder injury.
GAME PLAN: The Patriots have to prepare for a blitz-heavy approach from the 49ers this week, which will put pressure on the backs and tight ends to account for extra rushers. Since the 49ers play mostly a two-deep safety look and use their corners to force the run as opposed to an extra safety, play action will play a big role in the Patriots' passing success as they attack the zone coverages off of the run fakes while trying to suck in the corners by throwing out of some two-tight end sets on early downs. Since it's not known how long the Patriots' front line players will go, it'll be interesting to see if the team can have success in blitz pickups with the likes of rookie Cedric Cobbs in the backfield. Cobbs is not adept as a receiver or in blitz pickup, which may force the tight ends to stay in as blockers more often when quarterback Tom Brady or even Rohan Davey read an impending blitz. Cobbs isn't likely to be in that situation with Brady still in the game. New England used screens effectively to combat the Jets' blitzes last week after going away from those plays for much of the season. Don't be surprised to see New England revert to some screens if the 49ers get too aggressive up front.
Defensively, expect the Patriots to bring plenty of pressure themselves while also mixing up coverages to keep either Ken Dorsey or Cody Pickett off balance. Bill Belichick praised the San Francisco receiving corps as a playmaking group that can go up and get balls in coverage and New England will likely use mostly a two-deep safety look against San Francisco to give the corners outside help. That will force the front seven to defend the run without an extra defender, something it's done well of late, but hasn't been asked to do without Pro Bowler Richard Seymour, who won't play this week. Regardless of the personnel on the field, the Patriots will come after the quarterback this week out of the 3-4 that forces the passer and his protection to identify where the fourth and fifth rushers might be coming from.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. 49ers S Tony Parrish. When the Patriots lose games, it's typically because Brady has thrown multiple interceptions. He doesn't do that often and the Patriots don't lose very often. He can't give the Niners hope by giving them a short field to work with. Parrish leads San Francisco with four picks and is a playmaker in the back of the secondary.
- Patriots RT Brandon Gorin vs. 49ers DE John Engelberger. Gorin has struggled
at times in pass protection and Engelberger leads the 49ers with five sacks.
He has a high motor and will test Gorin.
- Patriots SS Rodney Harrison vs. 49ers TE Eric Johnson. Harrison is a physical
presence in the secondary who has proven capable of covering tight ends. In
some situations, he will line up head up on the tight end to prevent a free
release and also blitz from that spot at times. Harrison has two interceptions
and eight passes defensed this season.
- Patriots CB Randall Gay vs. 49ers WR Brandon Lloyd. Gay missed last week's game with the flu and should be back this week for the 49ers game. Gay has two interceptions and six passes defensed and has played solid football for a rookie while Lloyd is third on the 49ers in receptions with 43, but first in touchdown receptions with six.
INJURY IMPACT: The Patriots' injury report is growing by the week at the worst possible time. That's why a bye preceded by a meaningless game could quite literally be just what the doctor ordered for many of the wounded players. With Reid out, New England will continue to use a combination of people at the gunner spot, including Tully Banta-Cain, Kevin Kasper and Don Davis. Cherry's return this week should help on the other side. Jarvis Green will probably start at defensive end in place of Seymour while Vince Wilfork works his way in at right end as part of the line rotation. Hill should also get some reps. Since Corey Dillon is expected to have a short afternoon, look for Cedric Cobbs to handle a bulk of the running duties along with Rabih Abdullah since Pass and Faulk will likely be in street clothes. Kasper will take over as the primary returner if Bethel Johnson misses his third straight game. It's assumed that Gay and Moreland will play this week in the secondary or Lowe would not have been released because the Patriots have very few healthy bodies in the secondary.
If you are reading this article via a news portal, you can find the original
Or you can comment on the team with other Patriots Fans in