Quarterback shuffle was head scratcher

HOUSTON -- Receiver Wes Welker's injury opens the door for second-guessers to pan New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick's decision not to sit such a key player in the season finale, but Belichick should be spared on that front.

An injury can happen at any time. There's nothing that says Welker wouldn't have torn the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee on the fourth offensive play of next weekend's wild-card game against the Ravens.

Yet where Belichick deserves stronger criticism is the mixed message he sent his team Sunday in Houston. The way he rotated quarterbacks, specifically, was unconventional and way off the board.

In playing musical chairs with Tom Brady and rookie quarterback Brian Hoyer at critical times in the game, it was almost as if Belichick was playing to win … then thinking ahead to the playoffs … then playing to win again … before thinking ahead to the playoffs again.

Part of Belichick's greatness is his steadiness and the clarity he brings to complex situations, but this was one that had to have some players puzzled. It was almost as if he lost control of the steering wheel.

One of Belichick's catch phrases is that he makes decisions he feels give the Patriots the best chance to win. When it came to the quarterbacks, it's a mystery how this was the case Sunday, as Belichick explained his decisions as a chance to put Hoyer in situations that could come up in the future.

Specifically at the end of the game, this didn't seem to be the time to do that, not after Brady had been in throughout the second half, at which point it seemed clear that the Patriots were going full tilt for the victory. Receiver Randy Moss was also kept on the sidelines for the final drive, when the Patriots needed to move the ball 66 yards for a game-tying touchdown.

"We didn't really have anything set," Belichick said. "We just went out and played."

In the second quarter, when Hoyer came in, most figured that was the end of the night for Brady. He had played 25 snaps, the Patriots led 10-7, and Hoyer entered with the Patriots pinned at their own 1-yard line.

On the first play, running back Fred Taylor lost a fumble and the Texans recovered in the end zone. Hoyer stayed on for the next drive that culminated in a 43-yard field goal, and the teams went into the half tied at 13.

When Brady came out for the start of the second half, it caught the attention of Texans coach Gary Kubiak.

"I guess [I was] a little surprised from the fact that he went out and then he came back in," he said. "[But] I'm not surprised at how important the game was to them."

That's what made the Patriots' quarterback moves so puzzling. At times, Belichick's decisions made it seem like winning the game was the most important thing for his team. At other times, such as when he inserted Hoyer back into the game late in the fourth quarter, his decisions countered that mindset.

Unless Brady was hurt leading up to that last drive, it was a puzzling ending to an up-and-down 2009 regular season.

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