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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Don't expect an A for effort from Patriots

Bill Belichick knows you can sometimes win by losing. Bill Belichick knows you can sometimes win by losing. (CHARLES W LUZIER/REUTERS)

Patriots-Titans at 1 p.m. Sit back, enjoy, and wait for the playoff pairings to be announced. This is the NFL's version of Selection Sunday, and fans in a lot of cities are eager to see the playoff grid after tonight's last tackle is made.

For the third straight year, there is ambiguity concerning the Patriots' true intentions in their regular-season finale. Bag job or real deal?

Sure, there is something to be gained by beating the Titans today, but is a long shot at a No. 3 seed worth the wear and tear (and potential injury?) to people like Tom Brady and Richard Seymour? Will Bill Belichick allow this to turn into a New Year's Eve preseason game? Probably. Just be glad you're not paying Gillette prices.

Two years ago, the Patriots had absolutely nothing at stake when they entertained the San Francisco 49ers on the final Sunday of the regular season. They'd already clinched home field through the playoffs. But for the most part, they went about business as usual. They wanted to match the 14-2 record of a year earlier and go undefeated at home for a second straight season. They also knew they had a bye week on deck. New England beat the Niners, 21-7. Brady completed 22 of 30 passes and we didn't see backup Rohan Davey until early in the fourth quarter.

Last year, the Patriots wisely threw the finale against the Dolphins because they (correctly) wanted to play Jacksonville in the first round of the playoffs. Beating the Dolphins would have brought the white-hot Steelers to Foxborough for Round 1. So New England's second-stringers played three quarters, Doug Flutie was allowed to drop-kick an extra point, and Brady (eight passes) watched from the sideline while Matt Cassel ran the show for most of the day. The giddy Patriots lost by 2 points and got the coveted Jaguars in Foxborough a week later, winning, 28-3. Meanwhile, the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis might not have approved of the strategy. It wasn't exactly on the level, but it was a good move. The Patriots won by losing.

This happens a lot in sports. Bill Fitch sent his Rockets into the tank in the final days of the 1983-84 NBA season, and the Houston franchise was rewarded with Hakeem Olajuwon. The Celtics later employed the same strategy under the tutelage of M.L. Carr (17 wins), hoping they would get Tim Duncan in the lottery. It didn't work out, but it was worth a shot. Losing games to get a true franchise player is a good strategy when you are a nonplayoff team. Losing to dictate your next opponent also can be a good move.

Today is different. The Patriots are currently the No. 4 seed in the AFC. They can get to No. 3 if they beat Tennessee and the Colts lose their (4:15 p.m.) game, at home, against the Dolphins. Indy is a 9-point favorite.

The math is complicated. And the odds are remote. Moving up to the third seed only helps New England if the Patriots and Colts go on the road and beat the Chargers and Ravens in the second round on the weekend of Jan. 14-15. That would allow the Patriots to host the AFC Championship game against Indy. Lots of "ifs" there. Belichick has to weigh all that vs. the benefit of taking it easy on Brady and friends today to better prepare for next weekend's first-round game at Gillette. Bet he goes with Plan B.

The only thing we know for sure is that the Patriots already have figured out what they want to do. Nothing goes unchecked in any Belichick operation. Whatever he has decided, we'll know when we see who is on the field in the second and third quarters. The Titans are 3-point favorites, which makes it pretty clear the wise guys think the Patriots are going to lay down.

Everybody said all the right things in Foxborough during the week. Brady is going to start because he wants to be the next Brett Favre and he's not going to lose his streak of 104 consecutive starts.

"To think of giving me a day off, resting me, I'm not into any of that," said the QB, who is still smarting from a hit delivered by Jacksonville's Clint Ingram last weekend.

Naturally, Belichick (born in Nashville -- just thought you should know) wasn't having any of this. When the prospect of resting players was proposed, the coach reacted as if he'd been asked to hand over his bank card password. "We're going to approach this game the way we approach all our games," he said.

There can be truth even in a lie. The coach is looking at the Big Picture, and if he has decided that resting people is in the best long-term interest of his team, then he still can defend his team's "approach" as something designed to maximize New England's playoff run.

On Friday, Belichick got to talking about veteran backup Vinny Testaverde. When asked about the possibility of getting Testaverde some snaps, the coach deadpanned, "I hope the team wins in Tennessee. That's what we are going to try to do."

That's all good. But remember that he may have decided that "winning" means something less than 100 percent effort. He may have decided that the odds of the Colts losing today, then the Chargers and Ravens both losing in two weeks, are not worth the price of going all out to beat the Titans.

Oh, and let's not forget that Tennessee is young, hungry, and hot. The Titans have a sniff of a playoff shot after starting 0-5 and 2-7. They have won six in a row, and feature an all-world rookie quarterback and a coach who will not be intimidated or outmaneuvered by Belichick. The Patriots might not be able to beat the Titans today even if they tried.

And they probably won't.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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