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No strings attached for finale

FOXBOROUGH -- A meaningless season finale at Gillette Stadium against the San Francisco 49ers awaits. What do you do if you're Patriots coach Bill Belichick?

Give Tom Brady the keys to your Nantucket getaway and say, "See you in three weeks"?

Hand Corey Dillon a check for his remaining $375,000 incentive bonus (taking him up to $2.25 million) and say, "Thanks for the year"?

Tell Rodney Harrison to stay in his slippers and enjoy a couple of mugs of dark roast and the Sunday paper on a nice comfy sofa in front of the plasma TV?

Give Troy Brown a touchdown pass for being an incredible trouper and then let him call it a day?

Would Belichick be willing to watch this one from the coaches' booth and allow Romeo Crennel to run the team for some game experience before possible head coaching interviews over the next few weeks?

Obviously, if Richard Seymour's knee is hurt, he won't play, but even if he's all right, Seymour could be best served in street clothes giving pointers to Marquise Hill, the second-round pick from LSU who would love to play a little before his rookie season is over.

Larry Izzo, whose life is one collision after another as special teams captain, could take a back seat for a change.

In this very serious Belichick Nation, the coach wasn't about to have any fun with it yesterday.

"I'm not going to comment on that or make any decisions on that right now," he said. "We're going to get ready to play the game, and whatever decisions we make will come later on. I haven't made them now, if there are any to make. Certainly the guys that aren't able to play, or are questionable to play, I think we'll take a longer look at whether or not we want to play those players."

The coach acknowledged that there weren't any ramifications in the standings from the result of this game.

Not that you can glean much from Game 16 last season, a 31-0 win over Buffalo, but some starters did come out of the game eventually. The Patriots had an 11-game winning streak at the time and wanted to make it 12. They also wanted to preserve the shutout. And there was a revenge factor against a team that beat them, 31-0, on Opening Day.

But the victory was somewhat costly because guard Damien Woody sustained a foot injury, illustrating the dilemma coaches often face in a meaningless end-of-season game: play the starters to keep them sharp or preserve them for the postseason and avoid injuries.

The players would never say they'd take a game off.

"It's up to the coaches," said Harrison after Sunday's 23-7 victory over the Jets. "We're the players and we do what the coaches say. We're prepared to play 16 regular-season games. Whatever is on the schedule, we play it.

"Personally, I'm not going to approach this game any differently than the ones before it. We all want to win the game and finish the season on a positive note. Nobody here wants to give away a win, and nobody here is going to do that."

It would be difficult to rest Harrison anyway, since the Patriots are still depleted in the secondary. With cornerback Randall Gay out and Ty Law unable to play after testing his left foot, the Patriots were paper-thin in the secondary.

Another dilemma is whether to give Law a chance to play before the playoffs or more rest? The Patriots appeared ready to let Law play against the Jets if his healed broken foot had been up to it.

Brady doesn't have many personal accomplishments at stake. He's already made the Pro Bowl. He can extend his regular-season consecutive-game streak to 62. He can match his season bests in touchdown passes with two and passing yards with 298.

The interesting one is Dillon. His 1,519 yards rank third in the AFC, fourth in the NFL. Curtis Martin is 25 yards ahead of him, Edgerrin James 31 for the AFC lead. (Shaun Alexander of Seattle leads the league in rushing with 1,616 yards.)

Dillon said he was tired after the Jets' win and declined to speak to reporters even though he had just set the team's season record for rushing yardage.

Others such as Kevin Faulk (knee), Matt Chatham (hamstring), Bethel Johnson (thigh), and Dexter Reid (shoulder) could use some time off. We might see Omare Lowe display his skills at cornerback, or rookie Cedric Cobbs get significant time at running back. We may see a lot of quarterback Rohan Davey, and what's wrong with giving a quarter to veteran signal-caller Jim Miller, who hasn't played all season? Russ Hochstein, a former starter at guard, could use some playing time. Ethan Kelley, another defensive lineman who doesn't get a sniff of the field, could be a possibility, especially considering Seymour's status. It could be just another day at the office for the Patriots, but even in this very serious Belichick Nation, you just might see a few smiles and some laughter. If Belichick allows it. 

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Patriots vs. 49ers
WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m.
WHERE: Gillette
TV: FOX RADIO: WBCN
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Last: Pats 23, Jets 7
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