To play or not to play...

…that is the question, and I’m not talking about the Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots, namely Bill Belichick,  have a decision to make this week on whether they want to give some players a rest before the playoffs or continue to build on the momentum they’ve got going.  After beating Jacksonville yesterday and clinching the division, their playoff picture was pretty set. However, the Wild Card teams are still up in the air, so when the ball gets kicked on Sunday in Houston, the Pats will have no idea who they might be playing the following Sunday on Wild Card Weekend. Therefore, the Patriots cannot jockey into a position where they can win or lose to face the opponent of their choosing, like they did in the 2005 season. Now, they could play all of the starters or rest players to  try and either travel to San Diego or Indy the following week. The problem with that is Cincinnati may rest their starters as well, and if both the Patriots and the Bengals lose, the Pats will remain the #3 seed and travel to play the Chargers should they win Wild Card Weekend. The #4 seed, should they win, would travel to Indy to play the Colts. It’s sort of a pick your poison, as neither team offers a favorable place to travel to. So “to rest or not rest” starters does not hinge on playoff match-up setting. It simply rests on whether Belichick wants to give his starters a rest before the playoffs or try and continue the momentum, which will not be easy against Houston, who the Pats could possibly see the following week in the playoffs should certain things fall into place for Houston.

Tom Brady sounded like he’s made his decision, though what he thinks really doesn’t matter in the Belichickian Empire. On his WEEI radio appearance on the Dennis and Callahan Show Monday morning, Brady talked abut how he’d like the team to put together consecutive impressive weeks, especially against a playoff-caliber team in the Houston Texans:

The way our team is, we had a good week this week. We had probably our best week in a long time, and I think it was for a lot of reasons. I think it would be great to see if we can carry that over again, if we can kind of put together another good week. You don’t want to make it seem like one week we’re a team that looks like we did yesterday, and the next week we’re a team that looks like we played against the Bills. I said after the game, it was probably our best week of practice all season. 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 for 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 going to be a great test for us. I’d love to see us go down there and put together the same type of effort.

I think most fans would agree. We were teased midway through the season with impressive games against the Titans and Bucs, and then we had our hearts ripped out against the Colts, Miami, and the Saints. It would put a lot of fans at ease to see the team string together wins against 2 quality opponents. But, of course, there’s always the “What if?” factor. “What if Tom Brady gets hurt?” “What happens if Randy Moss or Wes Welker get hurt?” This is the fine line Bill Belichick has to walk when approaching Sunday’s game. Keep in mind, there’s not enough players to sit everybody who starts, so who’s “important enough” to sit and who’s “not important enough” to play the entire game?

It will be interesting to see how this plays out and if Belichick tips his hand during the week or keeps it close to his chest. Here’s how I think it will play out:

  • Nick Kaczur, Ty Warren, and Vince Wilfork will most definitely sit out. All but Warren sat out of Sunday’s game against Jacksonville with injuries, and Warren only played to help get the team into position to rest the final week of the season.
  • Fred Taylor and Stephen Neal will be game-time decisions based on how they’ve recovered from their injuries. Both played well Sunday and may want to parlay that into the playoffs. Namely Taylor, because he’s missed so much time and it’s more important for the running back to get his “sea legs” back. Both Neal and Taylor will have limited participation in practice.
  • Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Matt Light, and other key starters will start but may get pulled early based on how the game goes. If the team is dominant (or getting dominated), they will get pulled early. I think that if the game is tight, these players will petition to stay in and try to win a close game against a quality opponent.
  • All of the non-injured defensive starters will play. Trying to stop Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson will be a tough test and a good barometer to see how they will fare against the quality teams in the playoffs (except the Jets if they make it). It will be interesting to see if the young defense has truly progressed or were just playing well against less-than-stellar opponents. Johnson, I feel, is the best receiver in football and I’ve got my fingers crossed that the defensive backfield and the pass rush has improved enough to slow the Schaub-Johnson connection down (you can’t really stop Andre Johnson). Of course, if they get shredded, that will not leave the D or us fans with much confidence moving forward.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. Belichick has shown willingness to both rest starters (see 2005) and play all through the end (see 2003, 2004, and 2007). What do you think the Pats should do? Vote in the poll on the left-hand side of the main page. Tomorrow I’ll look at what I liked and disliked about the Jacksonville Jaguars game.

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