The 12-3 New England Patriots and 8-7 Buffalo Bills will play a football game with no playoff implications on Sunday.
Exactly whom will be playing will have implications for the No. 1 seeded team in the AFC, however.
Since New England secured the top spot in the conference, and the first-round bye and home-field advantage that come along with it, resting core contributors against an eliminated Buffalo team has become the expected byproduct for Week 17. Only that was not the message head coach Bill Belichick sent in his press conference earlier this week.
“We’ll do the same thing we always do,” Belichick said of managing players. “It won’t be any different this week than it’s been any other week. It won’t be any different this year than it’s been any other year. We’ll do what we feel is best for our football team, period. Whatever’s best for our team then that’s what we’ll try to do.”
What is best for the Patriots remains to be seen. Taking away helmets from players who are not slated to play again until Jan. 10, 2015 may not be it. Waging the risk of injury over the risk of two consecutive byes may not be it, either.
Linebacker Jerod Mayo’s torn patellar tendon and running back Stevan Ridley’s torn ACL and MCL suffered against the Bills on Oct. 12 serve as a reminder of the layered decision New England will face on Dec. 28.
Yet that layered decision won’t be known until the 1 p.m. kickoff at Gillette Stadium Sunday, or 90 minutes before it when the seven inactives are officially known.
The likes of halfback LeGarrette Blount, wideout Julian Edelman, left guard Dan Connolly and cornerback Kyle Arrington were among them last week against the New York Jets. And this week, a total of 15 Patriots have been listed as questionable to go against the Bills.
Running back Jonas Gray and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard were ruled out with ankle and hamstring injuries, respectively, on Friday.
Even so, there will be 11 Patriots on the field Sunday. And quarterback Tom Brady, who will have his salaries for 2015, 2016 and 2017 fully guaranteed being on the Week 17 roster, wasn’t one to slight the value of ending the regular season with a win.
“It’s important. They’re all important,” the 37-year-old Brady said on Tuesday.
New England hasn’t ended the regular season the other way since Jan. 3, 2010 against the Houston Texans, in a game that resonated more for the loss of then-Patriots slot receiver Wes Welker than for the loss itself. But what transpired five seasons ago doesn’t change the plan for the present.
Each game carries its own significance.
“I think they all take on different meanings, and this is a big game for us in that it gives us an opportunity to try to improve certainly on last week’s performance and with the week off, you realize we’re going to have a little time to rest up,” Brady said.
But the fourth-ranked Bills defense isn’t expected to make the rest any easier for their AFC East opponent.
“This defense will challenge you,” Brady said. “They’ve got a good front, one of the best defenses in the league, one of the best defenses we’ve faced all year. They’re tops in the league in almost every category.”
Buffalo has netted 19 interceptions, 210 passing yards per game and a league-leading 50 sacks through 15 games. And along the way, only four teams have conceded less in the points category than the defense’s 280 this season.
Brady and New England’s offense was made well aware of that just six games into the season.
“We’ve played a lot of good defenses this year,” he added. “This one doesn’t really take a backseat to anybody.”
Buffalo did not take a backseat to New England in Week 6 at Ralph Wilson Stadium, sacking Brady twice and conceding 50 rushing yards on 27 attempts before the visiting side pulled away in the second half, 37-22.
Yet that was a Pyrrhic victory for the Patriots. This time, both offensively and defensively, they’re hoping it will just be a victory.
“The playoffs will come,” safety Devin McCourty told the media. “When it’s here it’ll be here in full effect. We understand that. I think this team understands what it is to be in the playoffs. Right now we want to finish our season right.”