- Mike Rodak, ESPN Buffalo Bills reporter
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Essentially, the Patriots will need either a loss from the Denver Broncos (who have favorable matchups with the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns) or two losses from the Houston Texans in order to get back into the mix for one of the top two seeds in the AFC.
At this point, it appears more likely that the Patriots will wind up with the third seed in the AFC. If that's the case, they will need to host a wild-card playoff game Jan. 5 or Jan. 6, six or seven days after their regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins.
Last week, the Patriots had a season-high 19 players listed as questionable on their injury report. If they do not secure a first-round bye, the Patriots will not have the benefit of a bye week unless they reach the Super Bowl. That means New England will have to play five consecutive games before reaching New Orleans, and that might include back-to-back road trips to Denver and Houston.
With a 10-4 record and a division title in hand but a first-round bye likely out of reach, should the Patriots begin to rest some players this Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars with an eye toward the playoffs?
If they choose to do so, here are some players who could see a reduced workload for the final two games of the regular season:
Brandon Spikes -- Hobbled by knee and ankle injuries in recent weeks, Spikes appears to be the most banged-up player on the Patriots' defense. He didn't play the first series of Sunday night's game for injury reasons, according to coach Bill Belichick, and he didn't finish the game for a second straight week, replaced by Niko Koutouvides. Behind Spikes, the Patriots don't have any players with much experience on defense, so getting him healthy for January will be important.
Rob Gronkowski -- After missing a month with a broken forearm, Gronkowski returned to practice Friday but was inactive for Sunday night's game. At this point in the season, it might make more sense to give Gronkowski another two weeks to continue to heal, even though he was spotted Monday without a cast. The Patriots need no reminders of what losing Gronkowski means to their playoff chances; he was hobbled in Super Bowl XLVI last February, which the Patriots lost.
Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer and Dan Connolly -- This trio of starting offensive linemen has dealt with numerous injuries over the course of the season. All worked their way back to play in the team's past two games, but it's unlikely any of them are playing at full health. With the potential of facing the NFL's top three sack leaders -- Von Miller, J.J. Watt and Aldon Smith -- in consecutive games in the playoffs, it would make sense for the Patriots to give these three players a rest over the next two weeks.
After their loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night, the New England Patriots no longer control their own destiny in the hunt for a first-round playoff bye.