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Pats deciding how to prepare for potential foes

With a playoff spot, if not a seed, wrapped up, how will New England approach its final regular season game and the myriad possible opponents for the post-season?

At the start of his midday press briefing today, head coach Bill Belichickasked reporters how they were doing. They replied, 'Fine,' and asked Belichick the same question. He responded with an exceptionally chipper, "Doing good. Doing real good."

Perhaps he hadn't yet skimmed the National Football League's seemingly harmless sounding press release that was distributed today, entitled "2009 NFL Playoff Scenarios." Once you begin reading the vertiginous four-page document, you might require bed rest.

As an example, the 7-8 Jacksonville Jaguars, whom the Patriots beat Sunday, still have five ways of getting into the playoffs. But the Denver Broncos may have set some kind of unofficial NFL record. After having started off this season as one of the last unbeaten teams, they now have at least 10 – yes, 10! – different scenarios that could get them into the post-season.

At least 10, because the NFL's press release indicated that Denver and four other clubs could even get in if they tie their Week 17 games this weekend, but those possibilities were too numerous to list, apparently.

Heading into Week 16, eight American Football Conference teams were on the bubble to make the post-season. Just one of them – the Tennessee Titans – was eliminated from contention after yesterday's round of games. On the National Football Conference side, all six playoff teams have been decided, but not their seedings. Where they fall and who gets home-field advantage are all still dependent on what happens this weekend.

Even in the AFC, seeding is an issue. The Colts and Chargers have secured the 1 and 2 spots, meaning both have the first week of the playoffs off, and Indianapolis gets home field throughout the post-season. New England and Cincinnati will occupy the 3 and 4 seeds, guaranteeing a home game on Wild Card Weekend, but which team gets which slot is still up in the air.

Meanwhile, it's anyone's guess whom the Patriots will face … or when, for that matter. New England will host one of the remaining seven AFC contenders – Baltimore, the Jets, Denver, Pittsburgh, Houston, Jacksonville, or Miami – either on Saturday, January 9 or Sunday, the 10th.

So, how are Belichick and his staff are preparing for so many potential opponents at once?

"Right now," he conceded, "that's something we probably need to sort out a little bit. The guys on our staff that do a lot of that advance preparation work – the pro scouting department and a lot of our assistant coaches – will have to figure out how we want to do that. Some of the teams that are possibilities are ones we're familiar with. Others, we're not as familiar or more recent than others. We'll figure all that out here in the next couple of days."

And lest we forget, the Patriots still have one more regular season game left on the schedule when they travel to Houston to face the Texans in a must-win for that franchise to make its first-ever post-season appearance.

"Today, we'll watch film of the Jacksonville game, make some corrections on that, talk about the things we need to do, and then get ready for Houston," Belichick continued. "We'll get those other guys started on whatever we think's the best way to go on that. I'm not really sure what that is right now."

The implication being, do the Patriots rest their fatigued, battered starting players, like the Colts did for much of the evening on Sunday versus the Jets – Indy's first loss this season – or do they continue to play to win by putting their best players on the field?

"Honestly," Belichick replied, "I haven't really given it any thought at all."

He added that he and his staff will employ the philosophy to which they always adhere: Do whatever's best for the football team. But what could that entail? Belichick admitted that the answer can vary not only from year to year, but on a more microscopic scale, from day to day.

By essentially forfeiting their game yesterday at home against the Jets, the Colts have contributed to the labyrinthine process of filling out the AFC playoff docket in the final week. But Belichick insists he can't blame Indy for what they did.

"I think every team in this league does the same thing that we do. They do what's best for their football team. What other interest do we have? What other interest does any other team have? Whatever's best for that team or organization, that's what you have the right to do. Every team has that right."

So, the playoff situation remains fluid. But before New England can begin, in earnest, to focus on it, the Patriots must first decide what to do about Houston this weekend. Belichick may have offered a hint when pressed further.

"My thoughts are on Jacksonville," he said. "We knew that was a game we needed to win. We put a lot into that game and I'm glad the results came out the way they did."

Does that mean New England will let up on the gas this week? One could argue that, though a victory is always nice, the Patriots don't necessarily need to win at Houston. On the other hand, giving it their all against the Texans means getting a jump on preparing for a possible Wild Card opponent. Besides, why slow down now, when New England finally seems to be putting it together on both sides of the ball?

It is this conundrum that Belichick and his staff must solve in the next few days.

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