- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Many NFL teams play it conservatively in the fourth and final preseason game, adopting the if-we-get-out-healthy-it's-a-success approach.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has done it before, but not this year. Some of the most interesting numbers from the Patriots' 18-17 loss to the New York Giants in the preseason finale were snaps played, which include penalties.
A quick sampling:
Quarterback Tom Brady -- 18
Left guard Logan Mankins --- 18
Tight end Rob Gronkowski -- 18
Defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth -- 16
Tight end Aaron Hernandez -- 13
Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco -- 11
Those project as six of the Patriots' more important players in 2011, so this was a case of Belichick balancing the risk/reward scenario that often challenges coaches. Belichick wanted his top players to get more work, especially after Saturday's disappointing performance in Detroit, but in doing so it exposed them to injury for when the games truly count.
For the most part, it worked out as desired. The Patriots' top players helped build a 10-3 lead after the first quarter and a 17-3 lead at the half. Second-stringers were playing on offense midway through the second quarter, while the backup defense was on the field at the start of the third quarter.
A few players were knocked out of the game -- headlined by cornerback Kyle Arrington, a 14-game starter in 2010 -- but it was nothing like what happened to this franchise in 1989 when front-liners Andre Tippett, Ronnie Lippett and Garin Veris all suffered season-ending injuries in the preseason finale. Longtime Patriots fans often reflect on '89 around the time the preseason is ending.
Belichick served up a reminder that he took a similar approach to last year's final preseason game, so as other teams might sit their top players, this isn't anything new for Belichick.
"I think you do what's best for your team," he said. "I can't worry about what the other 31 teams are going. I don't want to say I don't care, but I really don't. I'm just concerned with our team. Other teams can do whatever they want."
The Giants were in a unique spot, having played Monday night against the Jets, the game pushed back because of Hurricane Irene. Coach Tom Coughlin wasn't going to have his top players back on the field just three days later against the Patriots; it made no sense to do that.
Belichick viewed this one through a different lens. With players such as Haynesworth and veteran defensive lineman Shaun Ellis having not played in the preseason, this was the last chance for them to knock off rust before facing the Miami Dolphins on "Monday Night Football" on Sept. 12.
"The guys that haven't played, a number of them, got a chance to play -- get some hits, get a little soreness, get used to the contact part of it, get used to the game tempo," he said. "Practice is practice and it's great preparation, but it's a higher level in games. I think it was good for them to get that."
Ellis, the former New York Jet, had opened his time with the Patriots on the active/physically unable to perform list while returning from hip surgery. He made his return to the practice field Saturday, Aug. 20, and likes the way he's been brought along.
Playing in the fourth preseason game made perfect sense to him.
"I had to work on my timing live," said Ellis, who registered a second-quarter sack. "It's just one of those things, you have to get out there and get the flow of the game and just get used to playing in a Patriots uniform, to see how they operate, go about things on game day."
Haynesworth echoed those thoughts, saying he had "kind of been rusting, sitting in D.C."
In a sense, Belichick approached this preseason in reverse. He didn't play many of his top players (including Brady) in the preseason opener against the Jaguars on Aug. 11, the game possibly coming too quickly for his liking, after just seven full-pad practices.
First-stringers were on the field for the first half of the second game, at Tampa Bay, and then they played into the third quarter of the third game, at Detroit.
That set up what unfolded Thursday in the preseason finale. Few would have been surprised if Belichick decided to sit his top units. Instead, he balanced the risk against the reward, and kept his foot on the accelerator.
"That was a good competitive game for us," he said. "I'm sure we'll learn a lot when we look at the film."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
Bill Belichick takes the risk of playing his starters in the Pats' preseason finale.