FOXBOROUGH –** When you have a playoff seed locked up – particularly the top seed, with its home-field advantage benefits – and your opponent in the regular season finale has been eliminated from the postseason, your one and only job in that game is to come out of it with no injuries.
That is "what's best for the football team," as a certain head coach is fond of telling us.
You don't worry about the final score. You don't worry about the effort that the players put forth. You don't worry about so-called "momentum" going into the bye week. You just get in and get out without doing any damage to your best players (or coaches, for that matter) as you sit and wait to find out who your opponent will be in two weeks.
And maybe get some valuable game-time reps for some of your underutilized players, like rookie backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo, while you're at it.
The New England Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, December 28, 2014.
The Patriots had the right idea at the outset, electing to sit Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, the only player on the inactive list not on the injury report this past week. Gronk has had misfortune in the health department in recent postseasons, and having him at full strength in January is paramount for this offense if it hopes to reach Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona.
New England also sat a few other players with health issues: WR Julian Edelman (concussion), CB Brandon Browner (groin), LB Dont'a Hightower (right shoulder), RT Sebastian Vollmer (back), and left guard Dan Connolly (knee).
Toward the end of the first half, Tom Brady was getting sacked, running QB sneaks, and taking off in the open field, exposing himself to potential big hits. This is not what you're looking for, if you're a fan.
Left tackle Nate Solder then appeared to hurt his right knee while committing a holding penalty just before halftime. He stayed in for the next play, then limped off the field as the teams headed for the locker room. At the start of the second half, Marcus Cannon – already playing in place of Vollmer – moved over to left tackle and rookie Cameron Fleming filled in at right tackle. Solder never returned. The team can ill afford to lose either him or Vollmer or both of their starting tackles when the to-be-determined Divisional Round opponent comes to town in two weeks.
After halftime, meanwhile, Garoppolo mercifully took over for Brady. He actually provided a bit of excitement for the Foxborough faithful, showing great athleticism and instincts as he eluded several Bills defenders on multiple plays when it appeared he was sure to be sacked. He ran the read-option a few times, and even motioned out wide on a Wildcat play.
Brady donned a winter coat and hat and watched the remainder of the game from the bench.
Just before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, defensive lineman Sealver Siliga appeared to injure his left arm or shoulder. He was examined on the field, then helped to the sideline, where he received further treatment.
Wide receiver Brandon LaFell seemed to hurt an ankle late in the game, but was able to bounce back and play till the end. He even issued a Tweet later, in all capital letters, announcing emphatically that he was not wearing a medical boot… in case you were wondering.
Another young player who earned some quality reps was wide receiver Brian Tyms, who saw considerable action early on, catching four passes for 39 yards.
"It was good to see him make some plays today," Brady said afterward. "We're going to need it in a couple weeks. Hopefully Gronk is ready to roll and Jules is ready to roll and all the guys up front are ready to roll. That's important. It's good when you have your very good football players out there. We had a lot of good players out there today that made some plays. We just didn't make enough of them today. We've got to be able to go out and do it in a couple weeks and make a lot of good plays."
"As a competitor, you never want to lose," DE Rob Ninkovich observed, "but we got some valuable experience for some guys, some quality reps. You take the time in these next two weeks to invest in yourself and get your body back to as good as you're going to get it for where you are in the season and look forward to finding out who you're going to play.
"I'm looking forward to this week of preparing for ourselves. You can't really look at this game and take anything out of it. Just have to put it to bed. As a football player, you're out there competing hard. I'm happy to come out healthy and feel good."
"It's been a long year, it really has," cornerback Darrelle Revis remarked. "You know, guys get banged up here and there."
Even the head coach needed to be looked at afterward. Bill Belichick had to skip his in-person press conference because he required attention from the medical staff.
"It's no big deal. I don't want to get into it," Belichick told reporters via conference call around 5 p.m. "I'll be all right."
So, the Patriots lost a home game. The first to the Bills in the last 14 tries.
They apparently escaped the meaningless contest mostly in good medical shape, with just a few potential concerns to monitor over the next two weeks.
That, in itself, was victory enough for New England.