- Mike Rodak, ESPN Staff Writer
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The day before each game this season, this space will feature one big decision facing New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and his staff, in terms of the game plan.
This week's decision: How much should the Patriots play Rob Gronkowski?
Signs point to Gronkowski suiting up for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins. The tight end increased his practice participation on Thursday and Friday to a level at which he would play during a normal week, according to a source familiar with how the team's practice repetitions were divided.
The likelihood at this point is that Gronkowski has been cleared for action after missing five games with a broken left forearm. The question then, is less if Gronkowski should suit up, but rather how much he should play.
There is certainly some value to getting Gronkowski back onto the field and into the mix in the offense. Re-establishing a rhythm with quarterback Tom Brady in a regular-season finale is preferable to trying to get Gronkowski back up to speed in a playoff game, when the situation is more urgent.
But if that happens early in Sunday's game, there's little point in stretching it out deeper into the contest. Gronk will be Gronk whenever the playoffs start for the Patriots, and a few extra minutes of game action on Sunday should not have a large effect on his performance in the postseason.
The outlook for Gronkowski's playing time will be muddled if the Houston Texans are defeated by the Indianapolis Colts earlier Sunday. That means the Patriots will simply need to win to earn a first-round bye, and keeping Gronkowski on the field longer is tempting, in that case.
Is that a risk worth taking? It's unlikely that Gronkowski will re-injure his forearm by playing longer in the game, but the risk of any injury is still there. Just when they're about to get Gronkowski back, the last thing the Patriots need is for something else to crop up.
What do you think? Should they play it safe and treat Sunday like a preseason game, giving Gronkowski one or two drives to get warm? Or should they get him back in true game mode, using him in the offense until the game's outcome is decided? How does the Texans-Colts result affect their thinking?
Vote in the poll and join the discussion in the comments section below.