First of all, there really are only two applicable comparisons to this week over the Belichick Era — those being the other two seasons that the Patriots made the playoffs, but didn’t earn a bye. So let’s look back at the team’s approach in 2005 and ’06.
In 2005, the team came into the season finale riding a four-game winning streak, with a win and a Cincinnati loss giving them the third seed. The Bengals rolled over in Kansas City, giving the Patriots an opening they didn’t have a huge desire to take.
Nicked vets Tedy Bruschi and Corey Dillon didn’t even dress, and Tom Brady and most of the prime-timers got a seat on the bench after a quarter. The Patriots still hung on ’til the end, with Doug Flutie’s dropkick (above) part of it, but found a way to avoid playing eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh in Round 1 when a Matt Cassel toss on a 2-point conversion wound up closer to the line judge than his intended receiver. Dolphins win, 28-26.
In 2006, the Patriots had won five of six going into the season-ender in Nashville, and had a situation similar to this year — with a shot at the third seed, but not a bye. The Patriots and Colts both won that day, which is why the AFC title game that year, between third-seeded Indy and fourth-seeded New England, took place in the Midwest.
New England was more aggressive in that one, with Brady and Co. playing well into the third quarter. But they also were careful, as banged-up vets Vince Wilfork and Benjamin Watson got the afternoon off, to get ready for the next week’s wild-card playoff against the Jets. And just like Belichick gave Flutie his moment the year before, the coach put Vinny Testaverde in so he could throw a touchdown pass, giving him one in 20 consecutive seasons and infuriating the Titans in an already chippy affair (That was the Rodney Harrison/Bobby Wade game). Patriots win, 40-23.
Now, neither of these games will necessarily provide the blueprint for what happens Sunday. But these would be the most relevant guides — more than season finales in 2001, ’03, ’04 or ’07 — going into this one, because not having the bye promises to be a huge factor in how the team approaches the trip to Houston.