THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

It will be quite an exhibition

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / January 2, 2011

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It’s here at last. After six days of speculation and analysis, the Patriots finally play football today in a game that means . . . absolutely nothing.

If you were at Gillette Stadium for Patriots-Rams on Thursday night, Aug. 26, you’ll probably be in Foxborough again today. Just because.

Bill Belichick is obligated, of course, to talk about how this is a “division game.’’ He can say that with a straight face because Miami is in the AFC East and that makes this a division game.

But we all know the object of today’s game is “do not get hurt.’’ And that makes for little drama. It’s Aug. 26 all over again.

At least it’s not as bad as the 2005 regular-season finale (played on New Year’s Day 2006), when the Patriots wanted to lose to the Dolphins. That day, it was clear that a win meant playing Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs (those Steelers eventually won the Super Bowl), while a loss would put the Patriots at home against the soft-and-friendly Jacksonville Jaguars. So backup quarterback Matt Cassel threw a 2-point conversion pass toward the Musket Men and the Patriots settled for a 28-26 loss.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis should have stepped in. It was a true farce.

The Patriots are not trying to lose today, but it’s a good game to practice the old Statue of Liberty play and the beloved Fumblerooski. Belichick can try a flea-flicker, a hook-and-ladder, a double reverse, and a double axel. He can onside kick and fake punt. He can bring on Brian Hoyer for a Hail Mary pass at the end of each half. Try some direct snaps to Danny Woodhead. How about Zoltan Mesko booting left-footed dropkicks for PATs? I’d go for the Dennis Hopper Picket Fence play if Bill O’Brien can figure out how to do it in a football game.

Of course, 14-2 looks better than 13-3. The 2003 and 2004 Patriots — both Super Bowl winners — went 14-2. Add 2007 and Belichick already has three seasons of 14 or more victories. No coach has four 14-win seasons.

So why not beat the Dolphins and go into the playoffs with a 14-2 record and eight straight wins?

Why not hold on to the ball all day today and go into the playoffs with a streak of eight consecutive games without a turnover?

“I think we just approach each game for what it is and don’t really worry about the standings and the records and all that,’’ Belichick said. “We just try to get ready to play and then go out and compete on Sunday.

“We’ll do what we feel like is best for our football team. It’s the same thing we do every week.’’

Most weeks, of course, winning the game is the objective. Not today. The closest Belichick came to admitting this is when he said there are “some players individually whose situations are a little different than other guys.’’

Tom Brady says he wants to play. Wes Welker, who was ruined while running a pass pattern in a meaningless game before the playoffs last year, says he wants to play. Bill Parcells told us that football players play football on Sundays. It is what they do.

But why would you make the trip down Route 1 to the Razor? Why invest time, money, and mental energy when none of it means anything?

It’s the same reason we go to preseason games, I suppose. It’s the same reason fans filled Fenway (OK, the house was papered, but there were still a lot of people) for September games against the Orioles after Boston’s playoff hopes were extinguished.

There might be some folks who want to see if BenJarvus Green-Ellis can rush for 72 yards to crack the 1,000 mark. You might want to see if Brady can throw a touchdown pass in each of the 16 games. Maybe you want to fix your eyes on Brandon Meriweather and come up with a reasonable explanation for his place in the Pro Bowl. Maybe you want to see what Hoyer has.

Otherwise, there’s not much, really. The theme for today’s ticket-holders comes from Admiral James Stockdale, who ran for Vice President on the 1992 Ross Perot ticket and opened a debate by asking, “Why am I here?’’

Some folks, including the Patriots and Dolphins, will be in Foxborough today because they’re working.

And you?

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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