There are two things the Patriots (12-2) have left to accomplish over the course of the final two weeks of the regular season - lock up the No. 1 seed in AFC playoffs and manage the team's roster in order to hit the postseason with as much healthy momentum as possible.
Preparing for the Week 16 trip to New York to take on a Jets (9-5) team still fighting for its own postseason life, it would seem unlikely that the normally tight-lipped Bill Belichick would admit that managing his players was a consideration. But that's exactly what the head coach did in his conference call with the New England media last week.
"I think we just probably do the best we can to manage all those things that you talked about," Belichick responded when asked about the balance of resting players to get them healthy and still closing out the season as best as possible on the field. "They are all somewhat of a consideration and we've just got to try to balance it out. I think each part requires some thought and every decision impacts other things as well, so you just can't act independently when one thing happens when there is a residual effect to it one way or another as part of the conversation. We'll just have to do the best that we can to balance all those things out. That's something we'll have to give some thought to and get as much information as possible because there are some guys that are in various states of physical health. We'll have to work our way through all that. It's definitely a challenging situation. I wish I had a cleaner answer on it, but really we're just going to have to work it out."
New England already has 17 players on injured reserve, including key names like Nate Solder, Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount and Dominque Easley.
This week's injury report includes 13 other players who are battling issues, including a list of guys limited in practice led by Danny Amendola, Scott Chandler, Patrick Chung, Julian Edelman, Dont'a Hightower, Brandon LaFell and Devin McCourty.
Of course, later in the week, in a conference call with the New York media, Belichick was a bit more focused on the task at hand rather than bigger-picture issues.
"We're getting ready to play the Jets. We're getting everybody ready to play," Belichick responded when asked about resting players.
Regardless of which guys take the field Sunday at MetLife Stadium, the players on the field will be looking to take care of business against the Jets who took New England down to the wire in an eventual 30-23 Patriots win in Foxborough in late October. Todd Bowles' team has won four-straight games to keep its chances alive.
The Jets are playing for everything under their first-year coach. The Patriots are playing both for the now and for the more important games that come next month.
And there is always the natural emotion of a Border War battle that dates back decades to spice things up when the Patriots and Jets get together, even if it doesn't reach Odell Beckham Jr./Josh Norman levels.
Here are a few key factors to focus on Sunday afternoon in New Jersey as the Patriots try to get the job done against the hated Jets:
Who to play? - Many have jumped to conclusions about Belichick's admission that managing the roster was a consideration. They even concluded the team might bag the Jets game in order to try to push the dangerous Steelers out of the playoff picture. Per usual, it's probably turning a mole hill into a media-built mountain. Really, New England will probably simply err on the side of caution with guys are dealing with injuries and play guys who are of normal health. Banged up guys who could play if they really had to, won't because they really don't. Being healthy for the divisional round is the most important thing. So, guys like Edelman, Amendola, Hightower, Chung, McCourty and maybe even Rob Gronkowski could find themselves sidelined. But it is hard to fathom it would be as extreme as some people saying that Tom Brady should sit out the game. That would be so far out of character with two games to play it seems unfathomable.
Jackson's debut - Steven Jackson practiced all week. Belichick emphasized his experience in the offense from his time working under Josh McDaniels when the two were in St. Louis in 2011. So it would certainly seem likely the veteran running back could make his New England debut at MetLife. What does the new Patriots No. 39 have left? No one knows. He was injury-slowed and well less than 4 yards per carry his final two seasons in Atlanta. He doesn't need to be great. Just better than Joey Iosefa and maybe similar to what Blount was when he had a couple big games the last two postseasons. Jackson won't get a full load against a big, physical Jets defensive front that leads the NFL's No. 2 rush defense. But the veteran should get a taste of his role as a Patriot. Fans, the media and the team could get a taste of what Jackson brings to the field in real game action after sitting out since last season.
Secondary test- The Jets have a veteran-led passing attack that ranks No. 10 in the league. Ryan Fitzpatrick is making more plays than mistakes. Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker are an experienced duo for any secondary to deal with, having combined for 165 receptions and nearly 2,200 yards through the air. Led by newly-minted Pro Bowler Malcolm Butler, New England's No. 8 pass defense will try to keep the pressure and coverage at a high level against a passing attack that is a solid postseason tune-up for the group. Fitzpatrick has been sacked just 17 times, but New England has bene ferocious up front of late, having already notched 47 sacks on the season. The Patriots pass defense has answered just about every test all season - both up front and in the back end. This is another chance for that on the road against a solid division foe.
Ivory take two - The Patriots held Chris Ivory very much in check in the first meeting, allowing the physical back to gain just 41 yards on 17 attempts. Ivory seemed to be dealing with a hamstring issue and that game was part of a midseason slump. But he's been back well over 4 yards a carry more often than not in recent weeks and is averaging 4.1 yards per carry on the season as the No. 6 rusher in the NFL. The Patriots run defense dominated the Titans last week. The group has been solid for the bulk of the year. They will look to keep that trend going with a second impressive performance against a healthier Ivory. Jamie Collins has been a tackling machine in his return to action, while Alan Branch and Akiem Hicks deserve a lot of praise for their work on the line. The Jets will try to establish Ivory out of some unique spread sets and take advantage of his physical style. New England must match that in terms of personnel and physicality on defense.
Prediction- The Patriots have won three straight against New York and eight of the last nine. But they haven't always been easy, in fact they've often been nail-biting games down to the final possession. Given what the Jets are playing for and the injuries that the Patriots are dealing with and managing, this game could very well be a dogfight. The Jets are solid on both sides of the ball. They can throw, pass, stop the run and the pass. They are a very competitive team which could lead to a very competitive game on the road. Regardless of what happens on the scoreboard, the day will be a success on some level if New England keeps the beast Muhammad Wilkerson (12 sacks) from hitting Brady. But I also think the end result will be a New England win, testing its mettle to eliminate the Jets from January with a 17-13 gut-buster. No beauty points or style. No more injuries. Just a No. 1 seed and a chance to move forward toward the ultimate goal.
What other things will you be watching for in this Sunday afternoon as the Patriots look to lock up the No. 1 seed and simultaneously knock the Jets out of the playoffs? Let us know with a comment below!