Rest for Patriots? Belichick needs to sleep on it

Team comes first
By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / December 29, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Bill Belichick, the man Bill Parcells once nicknamed “Doom,’’ was in high spirits yesterday. He smiled as he strode behind the podium for his Monday news conference, still beaming the morning after his team played perhaps its best game of the season, a 35-7 thumping of the Jacksonville Jaguars that clinched the AFC East for the Patriots.

“Doing good,’’ he said. “Doing real good. Good to come in and rewatch that game this morning.’’

He gave his team yesterday off, and as the glow from the playoff-cinching victory wears off, Belichick will have another decision regarding the players’ status this week. With practically nothing to play for in terms of playoff positioning, Belichick will have to choose how much, if at all, he wants to rest his starters in the regular-season finale at Houston.

Yesterday, he revealed little about what to expect Sunday. He had just reviewed film of the victory over the Jaguars, he said, and had yet to consider playing time for his starters.

“Honestly, I haven’t really given it any thought at all,’’ Belichick said. “My thoughts are on Jacksonville. We knew that was a game we needed to win. We put a lot into that game, and I’m glad the results came out the way they did. As I said last week, we’ll deal with next week, next week. We’ll deal with this week, this week.’’

Without being specific, Belichick was asked, does he have a philosophy on how to handle his current situation?

“Yeah, absolutely,’’ Belichick said. “Do whatever is best for our football team.’’

Belichick’s uncertainty proves there are two viable options. Several crucial players either have been sidelined by or played through injuries, including quarterback Tom Brady and nose tackle Vince Wilfork.

The Patriots could give themselves a virtual bye week and rest those players without penalty. They are vying for the third seed with the AFC North champion Bengals. The operative tiebreaker if the Patriots and Bengals finish with the same record is strength of victory, the combined record of the opponents a contender has defeated.

The Patriots hold an edge at the moment, but the final strength of victory for each team will depend on several results Sunday. The difference between the third and fourth seed will be negligible, anyway. Either seed plays a first-round home game and a second-round road game.

If the seeds play to form, the four seed may be more desirable - it would mean a second-round trip to Indianapolis instead of San Diego. The travel would be shorter, and the Chargers, having won 10 straight, are the league’s hottest team. The advantage for the three seed will materialize only in a remote scenario: if the Colts and Chargers are upset in the second round, the No. 3 seed would host the AFC title game.

Still, in a radio interview yesterday, Brady seemingly leaned toward approaching the Texans game as a typical week, all systems go. The Patriots played exceedingly well Sunday, and afterward running back Kevin Faulk stressed the importance of gathering momentum for the postseason.

“It’d be great to see if we could carry that over again, have another great week,’’ Brady said during a contractually obligated appearance on WEEI. “You don’t want to make it seem like, ‘Man, one week we’re this team that looks like we did yesterday, and the next week we’re a team that looks like we did against the Bills.’ I said after the game, that was probably our best week of practice all season, and it was probably one of our best games all season.

“If we can go out and put together another great week of practice, that’s only going to help us with what’s ahead. Obviously, we’re not playing the playoff game this week. We’re playing the Texans, who are definitely a playoff-caliber team. Whether they make it or not, it’s a great test for us. I’d love to see us go down there and put together the same type of effort.’’

The Patriots still could play any of seven teams - including the Texans and Jaguars - in the first round, a staggering amount of possibilities with just one week remaining. Every week, the pro scouting department and one assistant coach on each side of the ball begin early preparation for the opponent looming two weeks ahead. This week, the process will be tricky.

“Right now, I’d say that’s something we probably need to sort out a little bit,’’ Belichick said. “We have to really figure out how we want to do that. Some of the teams that are possibilities in the playoffs we’re pretty familiar with, others not as familiar. We’ll figure all that out here in the next couple days.’’

The play-them-or-sit-them debate became topical across the league Sunday night, when an undefeated season slipped away from the Indianapolis Colts in hideous fashion after coach Jim Caldwell benched his starters in the second half.

In 2007, when the Patriots chased a perfect regular season, Belichick played his starters to the end despite already having the No. 1 playoff seed. Caldwell’s decision irritated those hoping for another pursuit of 16-0, and it also had another layer. The Jets benefited from the mass benching, and it punished the other AFC contenders who could be shut out from the playoffs because of the Jets’ inclusion.

Belichick did not specifically address the Colts situation, but he sided with the notion that a team has the right, if not the duty, to choose what is best for itself regardless of the competitive balance in the rest of the league.

“Whatever we did in any other year was what we thought was the best thing to do,’’ Belichick said. “We did what we thought was best. Whether anybody agrees with it or not, that’s what we did, and that’s what we continue to do.

“I think every team in this league does the same thing that we do. I think they do what’s best for their football team. That’s the only interest that we have. What other interest do we have? We have an interest in our football team. That’s it. Whatever is best for that football team, that organization, that’s what you have a right to do. I think every team has that right. We all play by the same rules.’’

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