Meaningless Game? There Is No Such Thing As a Meaningless Game in the NFL

Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the Patriots can clinch a first-round bye with a win this weekend against the New York Jets, while a win combined with a Broncos loss will give them the No. 1 seed in the AFC Playoffs.
A day off on a Sunday? That’s hilaroius, Tom. Now get to work. –Charles Krupa/AP

Peyton Manning picked the wrong week to stop looking for cornerbacks, allowing the Patriots to earn home field throughout the AFC playoffs while in the comfort of their homes. A predictable result of this good news was the revival of a bad idea among fans and the professional agitators of sports talk radio. Bill Belichick is being urged to excuse important players, especially Tom Brady, from most or all of the Bills game next Sunday.

After all, the rationale goes, the game means nothing to New England, and a player or players the Pats can’t afford to lose for the playoffs could get hurt.


I can’t say for sure Belichick won’t rest some of his starters against Buffalo. If the Pats are leading 51-3 or so in the third quarter he might. Otherwise, I neither expect Belichick to declare the game Casual Sunday at Gillette Stadium nor believe he should do so. I’ll bet Brady and those other starters don’t even want the day off.

The allegedly meaningless final game puts NFL teams that have qualified for the playoffs in a no-win battle against uninformed public opinion. If they rest starters, as the Colts used to do with Manning, and then lose in playoffs, they’ll be ripped for destroying the team’s momentum and letting it get stale. If they play everybody and there’s an injury, as happened to the Pats with Wes Welker in the final game of the 2009 season, they’ll be ripped even harder.

But this particular Hobson’s choice is at least an easy decision. The Patriots can’t restart the exhibition season in December. The risk of not playing to the hilt against Buffalo is not greater than the risk of losing a man to injury, but it is a risk that can be controlled by a coach. Injuries are beyond his power to influence.


Football is bad for you. Players get hurt in NFL games. Players get hurt in NFL practices, too, sometimes quite seriously. Back in the Raymond Berry era, I saw Pats wide receiver Stanley Morgan break his leg running at less than full speed in a practice warmup drill. The Carolina Panthers had their starting QB Cam Newton suffer a lost time injury driving home from practice. If coaches tried to anticipate injuries, they’d go nuts, make that nuttier, before the first game of the season.

The unpredictable injury risk to the Patriots against Buffalo must be balanced against the all too predictable risk of making Brady wear one of those hideous stocking caps instead of a helmet come Sunday. This risk can be best described by posing a rhetorical question to those who see the

Bills game as an afterthought.

Folks, do you really want the last experience of live action for New England’s offense for three whole weeks to be the Jets game? Is that the collective memory you want the home team to take into the playoffs?

I’ll take a flyer and guess that neither Belichick or Brady wants that at all. The kindest possible description of the Patriots offense against New York was that it was not of playoff caliber. If the Jets had thought to acquire an offense this season, they would have won going away, and the same folks assuming vital Patriots can skip a game would be at death metal decibel levels of panic right now.


Without getting too technical, when the Hall of Fame quarterback says his offense has communication problems, it needs more game action, not less. The occasions where teams have declared they’ve had weeks of perfect practices only to go out and get beat by three touchdowns or more (a Bears specialty this season) are innumerable for a reason. The most important parts of football can’t be practiced except against live opposition.

Maybe the Bills won’t be much opposition. Their season ends Sunday win or lose. But maybe, just maybe, they will play in a frenzy of professional pride. I wouldn’t want the Pats to show any less of that quality prior to the playoffs either.

The notion that any NFL regular season game is “meaningless’’ is an insult to the men who play it. The day after they play the Bills, each Patriot will receive the ultimate token of the contest’s meaning – their paycheck. Odd as it may seem, the ferociously competitive people who are professional football players generally like to feel they earned it.

In his book “The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football,’’ Paul Zimmerman told a story about Hall of Fame defensive end from the 1950s and 60s Ernie Stautner. During a Pro Bowl, Stautner was kicking the hell out of the men assigned to block him. One said, “hey, Ernie, this is the Pro Bowl.’’

“You’re getting paid, ain’t ya?,’’ Stautner replied. “Shut up and play.’’

Hall of Famers are made of such irrational pride. Super Bowls, too. Patriots fans shouldn’t worry about Brady and the other stars playing this week. They should want them to – the same way the Pats themselves want to.

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