As they head into their regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins in Florida, the New England Patriots are 13-2 and are currently the No. 1 seed in the AFC draw of the NFL playoffs. But that top spot isn’t sewn up: they can lose the top seed if they lose to Miami on Sunday and the Oakland Raiders beat the Denver Broncos.
You have to go to the fourth tie-breaker to figure that out: the Patriots and Raiders didn’t play head-to-head this season (tiebreaker No. 1), they’d have the same intra-conference record (No. 2), and they didn’t have enough common opponents to qualify (No. 3). The fourth tie-breakers is strength of victory; if New England loses, its opponents will have a combined 78 wins, and if the Raiders win, their opponents will have a combined 81.
But even if the top seed and the chance to host the two games they’d need to make it to Super Bowl LI weren’t on the line, there isn’t really anything in Bill Belichick’s makeup to suggest he’d let his players take it easy in Week 17.
So when Belichick was asked during a Monday conference call if he’d be resting key members of the roster on Sunday, his swat of the question would make Dikembe Mutombo proud.
“I mean look, I don’t really understand that question. We have – I don’t know how many starters we have – but we have a lot more than – we can only inactivate seven players,” Belichick said. “This isn’t like a preseason game where you have 75 guys on your roster. This is a regular season game. I don’t really understand that whole line of questioning. I’m not saying I’m a great mathematician or anything but the numbers just don’t add up for that type of conversation so there’s no point in even getting involved in it.”
Now, as he often does, Belichick is playing with semantics here – yes it’s true he can only make seven players inactive, but if he wanted to, there’s no reason Belichick couldn’t have someone like special-teams ace Matthew Slater, who’s been battling a foot injury, in uniform on Sunday but essentially unavailable to play.