We all remember last year well, so be warned: Don't underestimate the importance of a Patriots victory in Week 17.
In case you had blocked out the atrocities within the final few weeks of the 2015 season, let me remind you. After stumbling through the aftermath of the Denver debacle, New England pieced together a half-assed gameplan, losing to both the Jets and Dolphins and ending their chances at the No. 1 seed as well.
Bottom line: Injuries and poor end-of-season gameplanning sunk the 2015 Patriots. The 2016 Patriots can't suffer the same fate.
From an injury perspective, the 2016 Patriots have been fortunate. Aside from Gronkowski, there have been virtually zero major injuries (I don't think losing Amendola is really a big deal, and he'll be ready for the playoffs anyway). And in losing Gronk, the Patriots have found a silver lining: the ability to adjust the offensive gameplan into a balanced attack, featuring LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis while allowing receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan to gain much-needed exposure. This is a strong trend in the right direction for the Patriots, whose imbalance in 2015 was a major crutch.
There's no true rival for the Patriots in the AFC playoffs; no other team comes even close to the strength of the 2015 Broncos. Both the Chiefs and Steelers look fearsome at times, but neither has fared well in Gillette Stadium and can be easily exposed.
However, the Patriots are virtually unbeatable at home in the playoffs, and securing that No. 1 seed is imperative. A Derek Carr-less Oakland team may very well lose to Denver, but they can't afford to take that chance. Miami, meanwhile, is essentially locked into the No. 6 seed and will be starting Matt Moore once again. The Patriots can and most likely will triumph in this game, but how should they play the starters?
Defensively, the corners need to show up against Miami's strong receiving corps. Assuming a Butler-on-Landry matchup, Eric Rowe and Logan Ryan will need to blanket Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker. Likewise, white-hot Jay Ajayi should face a tough test from the Patriots stout run defense (provided he plays at all). They can't allow Moore to get into a rhythm early on, and keeping points off the board entirely for the first 3-4 drives at least could put the game out of reach for the Dolphins quickly.
Offensively, I see Dion Lewis getting extended carries, as will Blount. They'll do everything possible to keep Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake away from Brady. Martellus Bennett once again focuses on his role as an in-line blocker, as does Matt Lengel. James White and Malcolm Mitchell will eat a surprising amount of targets, and we should be treated to a Brady bomb to Hogan as well, hopefully to ice the game.
On a positional basis:
Quarterback: Ever the perfectionist, even a 28-point lead might not keep Brady off the field if he doesn't like a particular decision made on the drive. Although Jimmy Garoppolo feasted against this Dolphins secondary in Week 2, this is Brady's game until Belichick forces him to leave. I can't see that happening anytime before the 4th quarter and with a minimum three-score lead.
Runningbacks: There's really not much alteration that can be done. Brandon Bolden has shouldered a full workload in the past, but it's rare. DJ Foster could get some touches, but even in mop-up duty there's been no indication that Belichick trusts him. I'd prefer that Bolden takes over in the second half if the Patriots are winning in a blowout, but I don't expect Belichick to pull Blount early.
Receivers/Tight Ends: Other than Edelman, who I think will be the first player to rest, it's a full-go. First to go in the event of a blowout would be Bennett, and possibly Hogan shortly after. But I'd expect a significant portion of 2-WR sets featuring Mitchell and Hogan each until the final whistle.
Offensive Line: Rarely have the Patriots found a successful O-Line in recent years, but they have it now. The quintet of Solder-Thuney-Andrews-Mason-Cannon has been downright excellent all season, but especially in recent weeks. Chemistry is so valuable to the line that I'm not convinced Scarnecchia sits anyone; at the most, you'll probably see some heavy packages featuring a 6th lineman (Cam Fleming) towards the end of the game in a chew-clock situation.
Defensive Line: Believe it or not, I think the most valuable defensive lineman right now is Alan Branch. He's an absolute monster in the run game and even Belichick has gushed over his consistency. Thankfully, an expectedly pass-heavy Miami offense (especially if Ajayi is inactive) should keep him off the field, and Vincent Valentine can eat up the final half or so if need be. But surging ends Trey Flowers and Chris Long will get their usual playing time, as will Malcom Brown inside.
Linebackers: There is some excellent flexibility here, outside of Dont'a Hightower. Shea McClellin and Barkevious Mingo should stick around until the final whistle, and Kyle Van Noy can wear the "green dot" in place of Hightower if need be; Hightower's knee needs to be as close to 100 percent as possible for the playoffs.
Defensive Backs: It sure would be nice to give Butler and McCourty an early rest, and I think they will. Rowe and Ryan need playing time outside as they battle for the CB2 spot behind Butler, while Nate Ebner (replacing Patrick Chung) and Duron Harmon would get extended looks as well.
Here's to a quick, convincing, and injury-proof blowout victory over the Dolphins!
By Will Brabrook