NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
Even in a 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night, the New England Patriots still made a strong case for being among the top tier of contenders for this year’s Super Bowl.
By coming back from a 31-3 second-half deficit to tie the game with 28 unanswered points before ultimately losing, the Patriots showed they have the resiliency of a champion and continued to display the NFL’s most explosive offense, even against the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense.
The loss, however, did have serious implications on their playoff seeding. Now two games back of the Houston Texans and one back of the Denver Broncos, it appears likely that the Patriots will be the No. 3 seed in the AFC, and therefore miss out on home-field advantage and a first-round bye.
The Patriots have some key players dealing with injuries on both sides of the ball, players who need rest to get back to full strength for the postseason. Now facing the prospects of not having a bye week, the Patriots should use their final two games of the regular season as an opportunity to rest their injured players.
While it is never good to overlook an opponent, the Patriots’ final two games — on the road against the 2-12 Jacksonville Jaguars and at home against the 6-8 Miami Dolphins — should be easy victories. The Patriots should still approach those games with a must-win mentality, but they can afford to play those games without players fighting through injuries.
Truthfully, it may not end up mattering whether they win both. The Denver Broncos finish the season against the 5-9 Cleveland Browns and 2-12 Kansas City Chiefs, which should also give them two easy wins. The Houston Texans only need to win one of their final two games to be assured of earning a first-round bye, and already beat one of those opponents, the Indianapolis Colts, on Sunday.
A loss may not necessarily affect their playoff seeding either. The Patriots would drop below the Baltimore Ravens if the Ravens win out and the Patriots lose one game; the Ravens, however, have lost three games in a row and have two tough games ahead against two teams fighting for playoff spots in the New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals.
Therefore, with a four-game playoff schedule likely lying ahead if the Patriots are to make a run to the Super Bowl, it is far more important for the Patriots to have their key players healthy for the postseason than it is for the final two regular-season games.
The Patriots appear to be as good as any team in the National Football League, but their road back to the Super Bowl for a second straight year won’t be an easy one.
While the Patriots have beaten both the Broncos and Texans this regular season, both wins were at home. If they end up as the No. 3 seed, they will likely to have beat both of them in back-to-back weeks on the road, where each team will be set on beating the Patriots in the rematch, and both are definitely good enough to win those games.
If the Patriots end up making it to the title game, their matchup there will also be a tough one. The Patriots really struggled in interconference play this year, winning only one of four games, and chances are very good that their Super Bowl matchup could be a rematch against the 49ers, who had a 28-point lead on the Patriots in the second half and became the first team to beat the Patriots in Gillette Stadium in December since 2002.
Without healthy personnel on both sides of the ball, the Patriots will be very hard-pressed to make it through their challenging playoff schedule without a loss.
Players who the Patriots should rest in the final two regular-season contests include:
Rob Gronkowski – The Patriots’ superstar tight end suffered a broken forearm, an injury that typically has a six-week recovery timetable, against the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 18. Gronkowski began practicing last week, making it seem very likely that he could be available for the final two regular-season games, but the Patriots shouldn’t take any chances.
As both a receiving threat and blocker, Gronkowski is far too important to the Patriots’ offense for the Patriots not to have him healthy for the playoffs.
Chandler Jones – Defensive end Chandler Jones was also injured against the Colts, suffering an ankle injury that took him out two games. But even though Jones has been back for the Patriots’ past two games, he still hasn’t looked to be at full strength on the field.
Jones broke out as the Patriots’ best pass-rusher in the first half of the season as a result of his explosive athleticism. He hasn’t had his usual burst off the line since returning from injury, however, and the Patriots’ pass rush has been largely ineffective as a result. The Patriots need to do a better job bringing pressure against opposing quarterbacks in the playoffs, and having a healthy Jones is crucial to their ability to do that.
Brandon Spikes – Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes has played at a Pro Bowl level this season, but not in the past two games, and he has been seen limping around the field consistently.
Spikes has given a valiant effort playing injured the past two games, but on a linebacker-thin defense, his presence as the run-stopping middle linebacker is far too important to their defense in the postseason to risk injury reaggravation in the next two weeks.
Alfonzo Dennard – Of any of these players, the one the Patriots may actually be able to afford losing least is rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Dennard has been very good since taking a spot in the starting lineup, but he has left each of the last two games early with injuries to his hamstring and knee.
The Patriots have horrible depth at cornerback, so if Dennard were to miss any postseason games, they would have little choice but to move Devin McCourty back from free safety to cornerback, which would in turn compromise the middle of the Patriots’ secondary. The Patriots should rest Dennard now and allow him to get healthy for the postseason.
Logan Mankins/Sebastian Vollmer – Two other players the Patriots may want to consider resting, at least by limiting their amount of snaps in the next two games, are offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer. Both players are crucial components of their line, but have battled injuries that have kept them in and out of the lineup all season.
Left guard Mankins has battled leg injuries, while right tackle Vollmer has had back issues. In the next two games, the Patriots can afford to play Donald Thomas and Marcus Cannon in their place, but having two of their best linemen healthy for the postseason is very important.