FOXBOROUGH – Rest versus maintenance.
Throughout the week, the conventional wisdom – at least among those who scrutinize the Patriots for a living – was that the regular season finale would hinge on which side of this debate won out.
Should Bill Belichickrest his starters, since the game was meaningless as far as playoff seeding was concerned for New England? Or should he play them, and maintain the momentum his 13-2 squad had built over the past several weeks?
With Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparanoperhaps needing a win to keep his job, surely he'd do everything in his power to field a competitive team, right? So, either the Patriots would choose to lay down or lay it all on the line. They couldn't possibly do both, could they?
Yes, they could. And they did. Emphatically, with a 38-7 drubbing of the Dolphins.
Granted, Belichick decided to deactivate key contributors on offense – wide receivers Wes Welkerand Deioin Branch, rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez, and guard Dan Connolly– all of whom likely would have suited up had this been a playoff game.
Even quarterback Tom Bradygot some time off, though not before keeping intact his streak of two-touchdown-no-interception games (nine straight), becoming just the six player in NFL history to throw at least one TD pass in all 16 regular season games, and moving into a tie for 10th place on the league's all-time touchdown passing list (he now has 261).
Backup Brian Hoyercame in for a few plays in the second quarter, then yielded to Brady on the same drive, but came back to throw his first-ever NFL touchdown pass in the third quarter. Rob Gronkowski, New England's other rookie tight end phenom, broke the franchise record for most receiving touchdowns in a season by a tight end (10) and by a rookie receiver.
Running back BenJarvus Green-Elliseclipsed the 1,000-yard mark on the ground, while Julian Edelmanset a franchise record for longest punt return with his 94-yard score at the end of the first half. As a team, the Patriots extended their 30-point-or-more streak to eight games.
Rookie receiver Taylor Pricesaw the first action of his career, and backup o-lineman Quinn Ojinnakagot reps at left tackle, left guard, and right tackle. Edelman snapped his streak of catch-less games by snagging three passes for 72 yards, including a 40-yard effort that fell just short of the goal line.
"We had some guys step up that hadn't played a lot and made some big plays for us," Belichick told reporters. "Good to end the season on this note."
"We're such a humble team and we're so competitive at the same time," tight end and co-captain Alge Crumpler(who scored for the second straight game) pointed out. "We're always looking to do bigger and better things. That's the kind of mindset you have to have going into the playoffs."
"Yeah, definitely. We knew we didn't want to let up at all," added safety James Sanders. "Going into the postseason, you want to be playing your best ball. Coach and our veteran guys on this team let everyone know that we're not going out there to lay down today. Then we went out there and played 60 minutes of hard, Patriot football."
"Oh yeah, the mindset was, 'We're definitely not shutting it down,'" Gronkowski affirmed. "I mean, the game plan was a little different because we knew not everyone was going to be playing. Some guys were sitting, but we said, 'Let's go in, let's get this.'"
They got it, all right, and from the get-go. By the second quarter, the game was decided.
Perhaps the lone disappointment of the day for New England involved running back Danny Woodhead. On a first-quarter carry, he was hit and fumbled – the first turnover the Patriots had committed since the Cleveland game in early November. Woodhead also sustained an injury to his head and did not return. Lucky for him, his team has next weekend off before getting back to meaningful football games.
"Right now, we're 0-0," insisted wide receiver Brandon Tate, who made a spectacular diving effort to catch Hoyer's touchdown pass. "We're worried about what's going on next week. Forget about the [regular] season … move on."
"I knew that if we did the things we're supposed to do, regardless of how many moves we've had, how many guys we've had to plug in, that we would be a good team," Crumpler concluded.
"We've done really well. I just want to finish the mission."
If they keep playing like they did today, that shouldn't be a problem.