The question isn’t what there is to play for, because the Patriots settled all of those matters last Sunday at Buffalo. With their 34-3 victory, the Patriots clinched everything they needed to clinch, up to and including a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Instead the question as they face the Miami Dolphins this afternoon at Gillette Stadium is this:
Exactly who will be playing?
With nothing at stake for the Patriots — or for that matter, for the Dolphins, whose disappointing season ends today win or lose — the most compelling question about today’s game concerns the amount of playing time for quarterback Tom Brady and the rest of the starters.
With a week off between today and their first playoff game, there’s a perception that Bill Belichick may give some of the starters relatively significant time today, if for no other reason than to prevent this well-oiled machine, which has won seven games in a row and 12 of 13, from accumulating rust during the time off.
Then again, there’s risk, as evidenced by the regular season finale in Houston last season when wide receiver Wes Welker blew out his knee, and the inactives list suggests Belichick is taking no risks: Welker will sit out, along with Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez on offense. Defensively, Tully Banta-Cain and three defensive linemen are out. The hunch here is that Brady will play a quarter at the most, and then it becomes Brian Hoyer time. Notably, third-round pick Taylor Price will make his NFL debut at wide receiver with Branch and Welker out.
The Dolphins aren’t quite in disarray, but there are public hints of tension as a disappointing season comes to a close. Receiver Brandon Marshall said this week that he’s not sure Chad Henne is the answer at quarterback. There are reports coach Tony Sparano could be on the hot seat after a bizarre season in which Miami went 1-7 at home; he will meet with owner Stephen Ross in the next several days. And linebacker Karlos Dansby, their big-ticket free agent signing in the offseason, will miss the final game of his first season in Miami with a toe injury.
The 14th win of the season should be there for the taking for the Patriots, no matter who starts and who finishes the game.
Kickoff: 1 p.m.
Records: Patriots 13-2; Dolphins 7-8
TV/radio: CBC (Channel 4). Bill Macatee is on play-by-play, with Rich Gannon handling color. They’ve called one other Patriots game this season — their last loss Nov. 7 at Cleveland. Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti — we could probably just go Gil and Gino and you’d know who we meant — have the call on 98.5 The Sports Hub.
Projected starting lineups
WR Brandon Tate, WR Julian Edelman, LT Matt Light, LG Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, RG Ryan Wendell, RT Sebastian Vollmer, TE Alge Crumpler, TE Rob Gronkowski, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, QB Tom Brady
WR Brandon Marshall, WR Davone Bess, LT Jake Long, LG Richie Incognito, C Joe Berger, RG John Jerry, RT Matt Kopa, TE Mickey Shuler, RB Ronnie Brown, FB Lousaka Polite, QB Chad Henne
LE Gerard Warren, NT Vince Wilfork, RE Eric Moore, OLB Rob Ninkovich, ILB Jerod Mayo, ILB Gary Guyton, OLB Jermaine Cunningham, CB Devin McCourty, CB Kyle Arrington, S Brandon Meriweather, S Patrick Chung
LDE Kendall Langford, NT Paul Soliai, RDE Randy Starks, OLB Koa Misa, ILB Channing Crowder, ILB Tim Dobbins, LB Cameron Wake, LCB Vontae Davis, SS Yeremiah Bell, FS Chris Clemons, RCB Sean Smith
WR Deion Branch, WR Wes Welker, TE Aaron Hernandez, DL Mike Wright, DL Ron Brace, LB Tully Banta-Cain, DL Brandon Deaderick, OL Dan Connolly.
LB Karlos Dansby, TE Anthony Fasano, G Lydon Murtha, CB Nolan Carroll, WR Julius Pruitt, DE Ryan Baker, DT Chris Baker, T Allan Barbre, LB Mike Rivera.
Play it again: The teams’ first meeting this season on Oct. 4 may be remembered when all is said and done as one of the more pivotal games in shaping the Patriots’ season. The Patriots routed host Miami, 41-14, on Monday Night Football, becoming the first team in NFL history to score a touchdown five different ways (passing, rushing, kickoff return, blocked field goal, and interception) in the same game. Safety Patrick Chung had his coming-out party on national television, blocking a punt and a field-goal attempt as well as returning a Chad Henne pass for a touchdown. It was also the final appearance by Randy Moss in a Patriots uniform. He was traded to the Vikings two days later after catching not a single pass against the Dolphins.
There’s no place like . . . With a victory today, the Patriots will complete a perfect 8-0 record at home. They were also undefeated at home last year in the regular season, but suffered a 33-14 loss during the playoffs to the Ravens on the Gillette turf. If you’re looking for a positive harbinger related to a flawless home record, the Patriots also went 8-0 at home during the 2003, ’04 and ’07 seasons. They reached the Super Bowl all three years, winning the first two.
All the small things: There are a couple of milestones and streaks in play today. Tom Brady has won 27 consecutive regular-season home starts, an NFL record. He’s also thrown a record 319 passes without an interception. His last came during the Week 6 win over the Ravens, when he threw two of his four this year . . . Dolphins linebacker Cameron Wake leads the NFL with 14 sacks. If there’s one reason to put a clipboard in Brady’s hands early in the game today, it’s the Pro Bowl linebacker’s knack for getting to the quarterback and his desire to win the sack title . . . Rob Gronkowski needs one touchdown reception today to stand alone in second place with the most scoring catches by a rookie tight end in league history. Gronkowski has nine, which ties him with former Falcon Junior Miller behind Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, who had 12 as a rookie with the Bears . . . BenJarvis Green-Ellis needs 72 rushing yards for his first 1,000-yard season . . . Linebacker Jerrod Mayo needs 14 tackles to become the third player in Patriots history with 200 in a season . . . With 20 points today, the Patriots, the league’s highest-scoring team, will reach 500 for the season . . . The only other time in their history that they’ve reached 500 was in 2007, when they set a league record of 589.