Big Decision: Rest up or play to win?

December, 22, 2012
12/22/12
1:00
PM ET
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron HernandezRich Schultz/Getty ImagesThe Patriots are hoping to have Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez ready for the playoffs.
The day before each game this season, this space will feature one big decision facing Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and his staff, in terms of the game plan.

This week's decision: How long should the Patriots play their key players?

PatriotsJaguarsThis topic has been hammered home this week, but it remains the biggest consideration facing the coaching staff as they enter the final two games of the season, with a playoff spot already well within hand.

Publicly, coach Bill Belichick will make it clear his approach: Players will play, injuries can happen at any time, and the goal is always to win.

But internally, Belichick has proven to be pragmatic. In the final game of the 2005 season, quarterback Tom Brady played just one quarter in a loss to the Miami Dolphins. The Patriots hardly lamented the defeat, as they knew it meant a lower seed and a first-round matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars instead of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who became the eventual Super Bowl champions.

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How should the Patriots handle Sunday's game against the Jaguars?

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Discuss (Total votes: 4,516)

While first-round opponents don't figure to play as heavily into play-time decisions these final two games, the Patriots' chances for a first-round bye are dim at this point. Belichick may be coy with reporters when asked about injuries, but he knows the health of his team better than just about anyone else.

The Patriots have had their full starting offensive line together for only seven games this season. They haven't had their Pro Bowl tight end duo, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, healthy at the same time since the season opener. They are thin at wide receiver, banged up at running back, and dealing with a steady stream of nicks to their secondary.

The idea, then, would be to identify the players who could benefit from the extra rest the most, and use those players only sparingly in the final two games, starting Sunday. The reality, however, is that with a 46-man game-day roster, it's difficult to go a full game without the services of a dozen or more of those players.

What do you think? Facing the possibility of three straight playoff games, the first coming in just two weeks, should the Patriots go into Sunday's game planning to pull key players at a certain point? Should they wait until a predetermined score margin is reached? Or should they go wire-to-wire regardless of the score?

Vote in the poll and join the discussion in the comments section below.

Mike Rodak

ESPN Buffalo Bills reporter

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