The Patriots have been very careful to not finish the 2016 regular season the way they did in 2015, when they lost their final two games to cede the No. 1 seed in the AFC to Denver and were eventually eliminated in . . . Denver.
The first measures to prevent a similar fate this season were taken last week with a 41-3 drubbing of the Jets. Now the Pats control their destiny and can sew up the top seed Sunday with a win over Miami or a Raiders loss to the Broncos. By all accounts, they’re prioritizing a win over resting star players.
But last season was last season. Denver's defense was scary. What could the Patriots possibly fear this season?
With Derek Carr out of the picture, there's probably more space between the Patriots and everyone else in the AFC since . . . when, 2007? Would anything actually worry them if they’re to take their chances with the scoreboard Sunday and give guys like Tom Brady and Julian Edelman a breather?
This isn’t a plea for the Patriots do necessarily do that; guys want to play because stats lead to money, and given the supply and demand of top athletes, you should want those guys to do whatever makes them happy. But the Patriots know where these guys are at health-wise, and they shouldn’t think twice about giving the necessary ones a quarter or four off if it means it’ll be easier to trounce the flotsam and jetsam they’ll be playing in the coming weeks.
Drudging up old history in this case might not be too telling given that these are all different teams, but it’s not like the Patriots have needed the No. 1 seed to get to the Super Bowl. In their six trips to the Super Bowl under Bill Belichick, two of their four victories (2001 and 2004) came as the AFC’s No. 2 seed. Conversely, they were beaten in the divisional round -- at home -- as the No. 1 seed in 2010 by the Jets (a victory that probably kept Rex Ryan employed as a head coach for the next six seasons). And in 2012 they lost the AFC Championship Game at home to the Ravens (they were the No. 2 seed that year, but got to host the title game when Baltimore upset top-seeded Denver).
Yes, they lost as the No. 2 seed in Denver in both 2013 and 2015. But that was then and this is now. With the Matt McGloin-led Raiders as their only potential road opponent if they're seeded second, does it really matter where the Pats wind up? It’s commonplace to go through potential playoff opponents and find a team to fear, but it might be a stretch to say one genuinely exist this year.
Of course the Patriots should covet the No. 1 seed in the AFC. It’s a feather in the organization’s cap and it would guarantee they wouldn’t have to go anywhere before heading to Houston for the Super Bowl.
From a competitive standpoint, however, it's just not that big a deal this time around.