Sunday's season finale lacks the buzz last year's final game packed, for this season the Patriots have already clinched a playoff spot with one game remaining on their schedule.
Last year, with Matt Cassel at the helm, the Patriots needed to win and get some help from around the league to sneak into the postseason. They held up their end of the bargain, but the rest of the NFL did not cooperate, so the Patriots sat at home for the playoffs for the first time in five years.
The fact this year's team has already punched its ticket to the playoffs speaks volumes about being good enough to control your own destiny. While this season was far from perfect, the Patriots did finish 8-0 at home, which somewhat gets overshadowed by the fact they're only 2-5 on the road heading into Sunday's finale at Houston.
By defending their home turf all season, the Patriots made their road woes somewhat tolerable. The 8-0 record at Gillette, coupled with an inferior field in the AFC East, allowed the Patriots to essentially cruise to the division title without much resistance. The Dolphins and Jets stayed on their heels for most of the season, but never appeared to be a serious threat to usurp the Patriots.
So, with what amounts to a meaningless game against the Texans on deck this weekend, the Patriots can spend parts of this week scouting the competition in the AFC as they await their first-round playoff opponent.
The only thing up for grabs is seeding; the Patriots will either be No. 3 or 4 in the AFC. The Cincinnati Bengals will claim whichever seed New England doesn't get, therefore those two teams won't play one another in the opening round. The likely opponent for New England will be either Baltimore or the New York Jets. Both teams can wrap up wild-card spots with victories on Sunday. The Broncos are still on the bubble, but they need a lot of help to get in.
The Patriots beat both the Ravens and Jets this year at home, which is where this assumed wild-card rematch will take place. The threat of getting bounced in the opening round really isn't a concern; Patriots fans are more worried about the team travelling to either Indianapolis or San Diego in the divisional round.
For now, though, the only thing the Patriots can worry about is emerging from Sunday's finale with their health intact. They might have to sit some of their starters to do so, which might not be a bad idea since they don't have a first-round bye in the playoffs this season.
In the past, the Patriots have played their starters through Week 17 with the playoffs on the horizon, mainly because they knew they had an extra week's worth of rest and they didn't want their key players getting rusty between the finale and the opening playoff game.
Teams with a first-round bye have come out flat in the divisional round in years' past, namely the 2005 Colts, who began resting starters in Week 16 with home-field advantage locked up early and subsequently lost their playoff opener to Pittsburgh at home.
Given head coach Bill Belichick's experience in these situations, it's unlikely the Patriots will drop the ball in terms of preparation. All that's left now is to watch and wait as the playoff scenarios unfold Sunday afternoon. Thanks to their ability to control their own destiny, the Patriots can enjoy a relatively stress-free weekend.
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