Commentary

Should Pats hit brakes or accelerator?

Belichick has played it both ways in the past

Updated: December 29, 2009, 7:45 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- If you slipped into a gray hoodie with sleeves cut at the elbows and assumed the role of Bill Belichick, what would you do?

Your team has already qualified for the playoffs and will be the AFC's No. 3 or 4 seed, playing at home on Jan. 9 or 10. Yet there is one regular-season game remaining, Sunday at Houston.

The question has been put to you by local reporters: How will you manage your roster for that final game?

It's a fair question but one you don't plan to address publicly, probably because of the mixed message it could send to your team. All season, you've talked about how the 53rd player is as important as the first player on the roster, so you're not about to get into a discussion about whether you will single out some of the better players on the roster, starting with quarterback Tom Brady, and limit their playing time in the finale.

Instead, you will stay on point and talk about how this week is like any other. The coaching staff will do what it always does: prepare the team to win the game.

But you surely know there are some important decisions to make when it comes to doing what's best for the team in the big picture. You have to consider what best puts the team in position to win three playoff games in three straight weeks, two of which likely would have to come on the road, to reach the Super Bowl.

There is no clear-cut correct approach.

Some point to 2007, when Giants coach Tom Coughlin was rewarded for playing everyone and letting it rip in the finale against the Patriots even when his team couldn't gain a higher playoff seed. Starting center Shaun O'Hara was injured that night, but the decision to go all out was viewed by many as the spark that ignited the team's Super Bowl run. Of course, the Patriots themselves, with a perfect season on the line, also played hard to win the whole way.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireBill Belichick said his philosophy is to do what he feels is best for the team, but acknowledged that can change on a day-to-day basis.

With that in mind, few would question Belichick's approach Sunday in Houston if it is to not break stride. The Patriots suddenly have momentum on their side in the ever-so-fragile NFL, so why change things now? The Saints and Vikings are experiencing how quickly the momentum can turn … in the wrong direction.

Yet one needs only to look back at the 2005 Patriots, coached by Belichick, as an example of a team that handled things differently at the end of the season.

The Patriots entered their finale against the visiting Dolphins that year having won four in a row and with a chance to be either the No. 3 or 4 seed. Yet Brady played only three series before turning things over to then-rookie Matt Cassel. Cornerback Asante Samuel, running back Corey Dillon, linebacker Tedy Bruschi and tight end Daniel Graham were among the key players declared inactive for that game, which the Patriots lost 28-26.

Belichick said Monday that his philosophy in such situations is to do what he feels is best for the team. He acknowledged that that can change on a day-to-day basis.

This year, one of the main considerations Belichick must be weighing is the possibility of a short week to prepare for the first postseason game. Not knowing the date of the playoff opener, or the opponent, has to be a significant factor in the decision-making process.

Belichick likely is asking himself this question: Am I giving the team the best chance to win in the long run by going all-out in Houston, then possibly having to come home and prepare for a Saturday playoff game with one fewer day to get ready?

The other major factor to consider is something Belichick is often reluctant to talk about -- injuries. Only Belichick knows how banged up Brady truly is, and how much he would benefit from a physical and a mental break. Elsewhere, it seems clear that starting defensive linemen Vince Wilfork (foot) and Ty Warren (ankle) won't travel to Houston.

Whenever the topic of resting starters is discussed, it's important to point out that, with a 53-man roster, there aren't enough backups at each position to make wholesale changes. The Patriots, for example, have only four backups on the offensive line. So in the end, only some of the starters could have their roles reduced.

But the responsibility of how best to manage the situation falls to Belichick, and if he's looking for a suggestion, here's one: Begin the game with as many healthy starters as possible with the idea of building on this past Sunday's momentum, then assess the situation after the first quarter, keeping in mind the possibility of a short week to begin the playoffs.

The ideal scenario, it seems, would be to produce anywhere from a quarter to a half of solid football, then start making some alterations to parts of the lineup.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE