Foxborough, MA – Once more into the fray at a wintry Gillette Stadium where the Patriots will play their season finale against the Jets on Sunday afternoon.
With the anticipation that this could be the last game for some Patriots legends, New England's game-day inactives are T Trent Brown (illness), DE Sam Roberts, RB JaMycal Hasty, S Joshuah Bledsoe, WR Tyquan Thornton (ankle), TE La'Michael Pettway, and QB Mac Jones (emergency third QB).
Although he hasn't made an official announcement, Patriots captain Matthew Slater is officially active for what could be his final NFL game. The ten-time Pro Bowler was listed as questionable on the final injury report due to a hamstring injury, but there wasn't much doubt that Slater would suit up in Week 18.
With his teammates wearing hoodies with the words "The Patriot" on the front and "Captain" with the No. 18 on the back, the feeling is this will be Slater's last NFL game as he heads into retirement. If the opportunity presents itself, head coach Bill Belichick could have one last salute to Slater.
Elsewhere on the roster, the Patriots defense will get a boost with safety Jabrill Peppers's return to the lineup. Peppers hasn't played since injuring his hamstring on Kansas City's final offensive play in a Week 15 loss. The hybrid safety ranks fifth among safeties in Pro Football Focus grade this season (87.0), is tied for fourth among defensive backs with 17 run stops, has two interceptions, and a forced fumble in his career-best seventh season.
The Patriots 4-12 record doesn't do Peppers or the Patriots defense's season justice. New England's defense ranks ninth in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), while Peppers has been a tone-setter for a team needing new leadership. The 28-year-old former Michigan star is under contract for the 2024 season, so Peppers will likely be sticking around.
With the Jets forced to start quarterback Trevor Siemian, the Patriots defense has its full contigent of personnel on the active roster. DL Christian Barmore (knee), DB Myles Bryant (illness), LB Anfernee Jennings (knee), CB Jonathan Jones (knee), S Jalen Mills (ankle), LB Jahlani Tavai (tooth), and CB Shaun Wade (hip) are all active for Sunday's finale.
On offense, quarterback Nathan Rourke gets the nod as Bailey Zappe's top backup, with Jones designated as the emergency quarterback. On the surface, this could be as simple as the Pats planning on giving Rourke an opportunity to play in the finale. But it'll certainly garner attention that Jones, who started the first 11 games, has been technically demoted to third-string. The most likely outcome in the offseason is that Jones will not be on the roster next season, but we'll see.
As for Zappe's available pass-catchers, the Patriots placed veteran tight end Hunter Henry (knee) on injured reserve on Saturday and will have three active tight ends on Sunday: Mike Gesicki, Pharaoh Brown, and Matt Sokol. Despite being signed to the 53-man roster, TE La'Michael Pettway is a healthy inactive. At wide receiver, New England's active receivers are DeVante Parker, DeMario Douglas, Jalen Reagor, and Kayshon Boutte. Second-year WR Tyquan Thornton is inactive due to an ankle injury.
The Patriots offensive line will be as expected with starting left tackle Trent Brown (illness) already ruled out on Friday. New England elevated OT Andrew Stueber from the practice squad as depth. But the anticipated starters are LT Vederian Lowe, LG Atonio Mafi, C David Andrews, RG Sidy Sow, and RT Mike Onwenu.
The interesting spot along the O-Line is left guard, where Mafi has struggled with nine quarterback pressures allowed in the last two weeks. Will the Patriots give fourth-round rookie Jake Andrews more run at left guard? Andrews, albeit in a limited sample size, looked serviceable in 13 snaps against the Bills last week. We could see more Andrews on Sunday.
Lastly, the two bigger-picture storylines as the season wraps up are the future of head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots 2024 draft selection. Coach Belichick will reportedly meet with ownership on Monday, as he does following each season, to discuss the future and current state of the team. Although there's speculation, nobody knows what the future holds for Belichick, and there's no reported timetable for a decision.
As for their first-round draft pick, the Patriots could finish as high as second overall or as low as seventh overall, depending on results around the league. The Patriots pick will likely fall in the 3-5 range. But we won't know for sure until the conclusion of the Sunday slate, with the Bills and Dolphins playing for the AFC East title in Miami on Sunday night – we'll keep you updated.
A disappointing 2023 season will come to an end when the Patriots host the Jets at a snowy Gillette Stadium at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday.