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Midweek report

Issue of sitting starters is a restless topic

Email|Print| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / December 26, 2007

FOXBOROUGH - With the Patriots having clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, one of the top questions entering the final two weeks of the regular season was whether the team would rest any starters.

It's a topic that seemed to make Bill Belichick bristle, and led to a refrain that has been heard many times in the coach's eight-year Patriots tenure: "We'll do whatever we feel is best for the football team."

Because resting all 22 starters is impossible, Belichick added that sitting selected players creates a situation in which some are labeled more important than others.

"You're going to pick out one guy that is important and say somebody else isn't?" he said last week. "I don't think that's a good way to manage your football team."

Different coaches have different philosophies on managing teams, and while Belichick hasn't traditionally rested starters, he hasn't been shy to turn to backups, most notably having quarterback Matt Cassel come on in relief of Tom Brady in the last two regular-season finales.

The issue usually comes to the forefront at this time of year across the NFL, and you can expect to hear quite a bit about it this week.

There is already chatter in Indianapolis that Peyton Manning will play just one half in the regular-season finale against the Titans, giving way to backup Jim Sorgi, as the Colts have locked up the No. 2 seed in the AFC and are thinking ahead to the playoffs. The team's approach has a direct affect on the Browns, who need a Tennessee loss to clinch a playoff spot.

The Giants, who have clinched the NFC's fifth seed and cannot improve their playoff position, must decide how to handle their season finale against the Patriots Saturday night. Considering that the Giants will be playing on wild-card weekend Jan. 5-6, a strong case can be made for preserving some top players. But if the Giants do so, they could be clearing an easier path for the Patriots to record the NFL's first undefeated regular season since 1972, when the Miami Dolphins went 14-0.

And how will the Cowboys, who have locked up the NFC's top seed, approach their finale against the Redskins? It's a big question, because the Redskins need a win to clinch a playoff berth. The Cowboys' strategy is also linked to the Vikings' playoff hopes, as Minnesota needs a win, coupled with a Washington loss, to qualify for the postseason.

As for the Patriots, they did not rest their starters in last Sunday's 28-7 victory over the Dolphins, although to suggest it was business as usual wouldn't be accurate.

Particularly on defense, the team's approach was notable.

While Belichick would never say it - it would be a sign of disrespect to the opposition - it sure looked as if the Patriots utilized parts of the game as test runs for unusual situations that might arise in the playoffs. Defenders appeared to be intentionally kept on their toes, shuffled in and out of the game without advance notice.

On the third series of the game, for example, starting cornerback Ellis Hobbs was on the field for the first play. Yet after Dolphins quarterback Cleo Lemon scrambled for a 3-yard gain, Hobbs was replaced by top backup Randall Gay for four plays.

On the Dolphins' second possession of the second half, a similar substitution was made with cornerback Asante Samuel. On that drive, Samuel was on the field for the first five plays before Gay replaced him for the next four.

On that same drive, backup outside linebacker Pierre Woods came on for what looked to be an unexpected two plays in place of Adalius Thomas. And on the next drive, Rodney Harrison, who earlier had limped off the field, took a six-play breather, replaced by rookie Brandon Meriweather.

From afar, it seemed as if the message to the players was to be prepared for all possibilities. It sure looked like a trial run, almost as if the team were testing out its parts as it prepares for the playoffs.

In all, the Patriots had 20 different defenders play in the game, and that doesn't include a late cameo by receiver Randy Moss to defend a potential Hail Mary pass.

Offensively, the approach wasn't as extreme. The Patriots did shuffle players in and out - for example, Kelley Washington took his first snaps at receiver in four weeks - but the lack of available tight ends didn't allow for as much flexibility at that position. Had this been a playoff game, it's hard to imagine that tight end Benjamin Watson, who has been recovering from a left ankle injury, wouldn't have suited up.

So when Belichick talks about managing a football team, Sunday's game against the Dolphins is a good one to bookmark, particularly on defense.

It wasn't as much about resting starters as it was seemingly about keeping all players on notice. Yes, the team had a game to win, and played hard to ensure the result. But in many ways, it seemed as if the defense was tuning up all its parts for the playoffs.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com

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