Foxborough, Mass. - The New England Patriots entered Sunday's season finale against the San Francisco 49ers with an array of goals that would bridge the gap from the end of the regular season to the beginning of the playoffs. The Patriots exited Gillette Stadium with a 21-7 win over the futile 49ers, and can also feel satisfied they accomplished most, if not all, of their itinerary along the way.
The Patriots sustained their late-season momentum and confidence by coming away with a win Sunday, even if it was in less-than-perfect fashion against a far-from-perfect opponent. They survived turnovers on three of their five first half possessions and managed to keep the game tied at 7-7 at halftime mostly because the 49ers were simply overmatched. They played turnover-free in the second half, riding 116 yards rushing a touchdown from Corey Dillon and Tom Brady's second touchdown pass of the day to take a 14-point lead early in the fourth quarter before getting many starters out of the game.
The Patriots also succeeded in leaving the game without any additional injuries, finding playing time for several reserve players, and keeping the starters sharp even though their performance, at times, was less than stellar.
"Well, it was a good regular season," Brady summarized. "And 14-2, everyone was excited, especially coming into today. Although we kind of knew where we were seeded and stuff for the playoffs, it was still fun to go out there and win."
As soon as the final whistle sounded, the Patriots moved on from the victory - which was meaningless in terms of wins and losses - and looked immediately ahead to the playoffs. Head coach Bill Belichick made it a point to congratulate his team on matching last season's franchise-best 14-2 record.
"Congratulations to the team on another 14-win season," Belichick said. "I thought for what they have been through this year, I think you have to give a lot of credit to the players for their diligence, their perseverance, and for battling all the way through. It has been a long season and they have been tough and they played tough. I thought they played well enough again today so we are happy with that. It is on to the playoffs."
The Patriots 14-win season matches the franchise-best 14-2 mark they set last season en route to their second Super Bowl win in three years. It also ties the best regular-season record in league history by a defending Super Bowl champion, accomplished by five other teams, the latest being the 1998 Denver Broncos.
"Here's a game that a lot of people didn't look at and a lot of people weren't looking forward to," Tedy Bruschi said. "In this locker room, we wanted to win the game. We wanted 14."
Indeed, the most important aspects of Sunday's win aren't in the details of the game but in the fact the Patriots didn't suffer any additional major injuries and can now look ahead to a bye week through the first round of the playoffs before a home divisional game the following week. The week off will gave the battered Patriots - who currently have 15 players on the injury list, including Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour and veteran cornerback Ty Law - a chance to heal from the 16-game regular season while giving injured players an extra week of recovery. The Patriots have played 14 straight weeks since their bye during Week 3 of the regular season.
The Patriots won't take the field again until the AFC Divisional Playoffs in two weeks. Belichick indicated that he would give the players some time off later in the week and over the weekend as he determines their upcoming schedule, saying they deserved the break.
"I think the players earned it," Belichick said. "When you win 14 games, I think you earn that. I am sure that from playing out the last 14 games, since the Arizona game, it has been a tough schedule. It has been grueling. We have faced a lot of good, tough competition and I am sure the players will be able to use a couple of days and a weekend without that battle and without battling another tough football team like we have had for the last 14 weekends. So, I am sure that they will appreciate it next Sunday afternoon."
As remarkable as the Patriots have been in winning games without injured starters, getting key players like Seymour, Law, safety Eugene Wilson and running back Kevin Faulk - none of whom played Sunday - back to full strength. The bye week provides an immediate remedy.
"You want your best out there when you're playing playoff football, especially," Bruschi said. "Ty is our best defensnive back. Richard is our best defensive lineman. So to not have those guys, I would miss them definitely. I think our defense would miss them. But that's how we have to take advantage of the these two weeks and get them back."
Considering the magnitude of the injuries on the Patriots, many of the starters were left in the game longer than many expected, or many were comfortable with seeing, in a game with no bearing on the postseason. Brady, who completed 22-of-30 passes for 226 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception, played three quarters before being replaced by Rohan Davey. Most of the offensive starters came out with just more than eight minutes remaining for the Patriots final two drives, while many of the defensive players played the entire game but were rotated more liberally at the end of the game.
Belichick said taking his starters out at any point was more about giving reserve players a chance to play than concerns about injuries to key players.
"The only thing we looked at in this game was getting people in the game," Belichick said. "I never thought about taking anybody out. I thought about putting people in who might have to take on a role later on in the season. This is more about getting your team ready and getting your players ready to play and putting people in, rather than it is taking people out."
Bruschi echoed many of the player's thoughts about playing time.
"That's the only way I would have wanted to finish a football season, is to play the entire game," Bruschi said. "No matter what the situation is, leave me in. I want to play."
In the big picture, to judge the Patriots assessment of Sunday's win and their overall mentality is to see how quickly they turned their attention to the playoffs.
"I started thinking about them now," Rodney Harrison said. "Because you get a certain excitement that comes along with finishing the season off. You make sure you're playing hard personally, with no injuries, from a personal standpoint, and it's exciting. You almost want to go out and play next week. But you enjoy the bye and then whoever we play, we're excited about it."