Patriots Should Risk Nothing Against Niners

<p>Talk about a mismatch. The 12-3 New England Patriots host the 2-13 San Francisco 49ers at Gillette Stadium in this regular season finale. The Patriots have personified the current version of Superbowl dynasty material that the Niners used to represent a decade ago.</p> <p>John MacKenna previews this regular season finale against the once proud franchise from San Francisco.</p>

PHOTO: New York Jets wide receiver Santana Moss, right, drops the ball at the goal line but scores the Jets' lone touchdown against New England Patriots' Eugene Wilson, left, and Earthwind Moreland during the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 26, 2004 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Patriots won 23-7. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Patriots Should Risk Nothing Against Niners
By John MacKenna

There is only one thing at stake when the 13-2 New England Patriots host the 2-13 San Francisco 49ers: the health of the Patriots. Head Coach Bill Belichick should forego any concern about the outcome of this game and play for the weeks ahead.

There has been a lot of talk in the NFL press this week about the relative value of momentum and rest. Should the Indianapolis Colts try to win in Denver and enter the playoffs on a nine-game winning streak? Should the Pittsburgh Steelers try to stretch their win streak to 14 games against the Buffalo Bills?

Belichick and the Patriots should rise above such concerns and prepare to deal with whatever fallout might result from a loss to the lowly 49ers. If the Patriots win their third Super Bowl in four years on Feb. 6, no one will remember a loss in a regular-season finale devoid of meaning.

The Steelers and Colts face a slight dilemma in that both are playing teams, the Bills and Broncos, respectively, that are battling for wild-card playoff berths. It might be unseemly for the Steelers and Colts to rest all the starters when their opponents have so much at stake.

The Patriots have no such excuse. The Niners aren't even jockeying for draft position, having already locked up the No. 1 pick.

The story begins in the defensive backfield, where New England has been wracked by injuries for most of the season. This week's injury report from Foxborough lists CBs Randall Gay (arm), Asante Samuel (shoulder) and Earthwind Moreland (abdomen) and S Eugene Wilson (thigh) as questionable. Safety Dexter Reid (shoulder) is doubtful and CB Ty Law (foot) is also questionable.

To have a shot at another championship, the Patriots need Wilson, Samuel and Gay to be as healthy as possible when New England takes the field for the AFC Divisional Playoff on Jan. 15 or Jan. 16. The Patriots, who have lost starting CB Tyrone Poole for the season, should go into the playoffs with Samuel and Law at the corners with Gay playing the nickel. Those are the best cornerbacks on the roster, and Belichick would be foolish to risk the health of any of them in Sunday's thoroughly meaningless game.

There is no guarantee that the injured DBs will all be ready for the playoffs, but their chances only get worse with every down they play this Sunday.

It would behoove the Patriots to let Omar Lowe, Troy Brown and Moreland handle all the cornerback duties against the 49ers. Rodney Harrison can play some at safety, but why not leave the job mostly to Don Davis and Je'Rod Cherry? Things might get very ugly, but the Patriots need not be embarrassed for tending to their own most vital interests.

One position where New England has been remarkably healthy all year is linebacker. None of the starters, Mike Vrabel, Ted Johnson, Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest, have missed a game. Rosevelt Colvin also has stayed healthy all year.

With the problems in the backfield, the Patriots need the linebackers to stay on their feet, so this would be a good week to give plenty of snaps to Tully Banta-Cain, Justin Kurpeikis, Larry Izzo and Matt Chatham (if he's healthy).

Up front, the Patriots are healthy aside from the knee injury that Pro-Bowler Richard Seymour suffered last Sunday against the Jets. Early reports indicate that Seymour will return for the playoffs. Belichick should count his blessings on Sunday and activate NT Ethan Kelley, who has not played all year.

Belichick can also throw a bone to the Foxborough faithful by unveiling DE Marquise Hill, the team's second-round pick in the 2004 draft. Hill is 6'6", 300 pounds, and Scouts Inc. describes him as "the biggest DE prospect in the class," who has a chance to develop into "the best run defender of the group." "He is quick and powerful," Scouts Inc. reports. "He shows very good recognition skills. Shows the ability to hold his ground, disengage, locate the ball and pursue. Has good closing burst for his size and is powerful, reliable tackler." He has "very good initial quickness and excellent power as a pass rusher." Patriots fans are intrigued. Why not give Ty Warren some time off and get a look at the rookie?

On offense, it is imperative that the Patriots give QB Tom Brady most of the day off. He appears healthy, but the Patriots are going nowhere without him, so why risk anything? Belichick should give Rohan Davey another chance to match the performance that made him the offensive player of the year of NFL Europe earlier this year. Third-string QB Jim Miller also could use some snaps.

The same goes for RB Corey Dillon, who has battled a thigh injury for much of the season. The Patriots won two Super Bowls without him, but times have changed, and New England's defense can be burned by an offensive powerhouse such as the Colts. They need Dillon at the top of his game so that they can grind out the yards, control the clock and compete in a high-scoring game.

Dillon is relatively healthy, but reserve RBs Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass are both dinged up. Both are valued contributors, and the Patriots should rest them along with Dillon and hand the ball instead to Rabih Abdullah and Cedric Cobbs.

Another Patriot who should sit this one out is kick returner Bethel Johnson, who reportedly is ready to go this week after missing three games with a thigh injury. The Patriots need their return game to be at its best in the playoffs, so why risk Johnson's well-being in this meaningless affair?

Publicly, the Patriots are not entertaining talk of writing off the 49ers game. "We have to go out there and we have to win a ballgame," Harrison told "I don't want to go out there just to get off the field. I want to go out there and win, because that's ultimately what you play for."

The Patriots might be able to have their cake and eat it too, because the 49ers simply aren't any good. Their only two wins came in overtime against the 5-10 Arizona Cardinals. On defense, the 49ers are allowing opponents an average of 28.7 points a game, worst in the NFL. The Niners have only eight interceptions, including four by veteran safety Tony Parrish. DE John Engelberger has five sacks to lead the team. LB Jamie Winborn has 4.5 sacks, but he will miss the game with a shoulder injury suffered last Sunday.

On offense, the Niners are averaging only 284.5 yards per game, 26th in the NFL. They have given the ball away 34 times (18 interceptions, 16 fumbles). QB Ken Dorsey, who is expected to start, has a quarterback rating of 58.0 and averages 5.29 yards per pass attempt. The 49ers have allowed 51 sacks, second-most in the NFL. RB Kevan Barlow averages 3.3 yards per rush. The offensive star is TE Eric Johnson, who has 79 catches for 797 yards.

John is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna"

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