|ESPN.com: BlogsColumns||[Print without images]|
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- They know the what-ifs.
The players, coaches -- the entire New England Patriots organization.
"It would be hard [not to]," quarterback Tom Brady said.
A win in Week 17 plus some help means a wild-card weekend spent at home, and, if everything falls in line, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
But right now, the what-ifs aren't on their minds.
The approach for the Patriots is simple: Focus on the task at hand, the Miami Dolphins.
|Tom Brady is taking nothing for granted heading into Sunday's game with the Dolphins.|
"Right now, we just want to take advantage of our opportunity to prepare and play well and coach well this Sunday," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "That's really what it's about. I'm not trying to look anywhere past Sunday. I'm just looking to Sunday."
The stated approach is consistent with what Belichick has lived and breathed as a head coach, never deviating from the course in a league in which upsets are as regular as they are unpredictable.
"I've been around this league long enough to know that you can't predict how things are going to go on Sundays in the NFL," he said. "We'll control what we can control, which is to get ready and play Miami."
Scoreboard watching? Not this team.
"I probably won't even watch [the early games] or pay attention to it," defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. "To be honest, I'll just be focused on playing Miami."
After all, a loss to Miami would strip the Patriots of any shot at a first-round bye.
The task won't be easy, either, as just 23 days ago the Dolphins gave the Patriots, in the words of Brady, "all [they] could handle,"
"There's nothing easy about this team," Brady said. "They've been on the short end of a few losses, but they challenge you in a lot of different ways."
The message is clear within the walls at Gillette Stadium: The Patriots are as zoned in on the Dolphins as they have been any opponent this season.
But though they are locked in on their opponents, the intrigue among fans and followers will pique in the moments leading up to their final regular-season game.
Thanks to the NFL's flex scheduling, the Patriots will have the benefit of knowing the result of one game that could open the door for them to seize a top-two seed in the AFC, as the Houston Texans kick off with the Indianapolis Colts at 1 p.m., more than three hours in advance of the Patriots' game (which was flexed from 1 to 4:25 p.m.).
A Colts win would make it simple for the Patriots: Win and clinch a top-two seed while retaining a shot at the AFC's top seed (which would require a Denver Broncos loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in another 4:25 p.m. game).
Indianapolis, like the Patriots, has made its approach clear leading up to the regular-season finale. The Colts say they'll play to win despite the fact that the team is locked in as the fifth seed.
"You want to win," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said on Wednesday. "You want to win at home."
That involves Pagano playing his starters, veterans Reggie Wayne and Dwight Freeney included.
On Wednesday, Belichick spoke about the possibility of choosing between resting or playing one of his own star players, tight end Rob Gronkowski, who continues to work his way back from a broken forearm that has kept him out of the past five games.
"I think those are really decisions that are made medically," Belichick said. "If players are ready to play, we play them. If they're not, then we don't. It's the same for every player. We treat them all the same."
Just like the Patriots treat every game the same, Week 17 included.
Belichick admitted on Monday that he has taken the time to set the wheels in motion on preparation for a potential game in the wild-card round.
"I think there's a certain amount of planning and looking ahead that, as a head coach, you need to do, or organizationally you need to do," he said. "We could be traveling in the playoffs, so we have to look at where we would stay if we have to travel in the playoffs, things like that. You can't be totally oblivious to the possibilities that exist out there."
But that preparation never extends to the players, he said, as they operate week-to-week.
And by the sound of his words on Wednesday, that advanced scouting homework is on hold for Belichick and his coaching staff, as they too continue preparations for the Dolphins.
Things could change. The Texans could take care of business against the Colts and the Broncos could race out to a big lead over the Chiefs early in the game.
The tides may turn at that point; Belichick may decide to pull Brady from the huddle and insert his reserve-level players. The Patriots' goals extend beyond this Sunday, and such a tactic could be prudent.
But the Patriots aren't interested in dealing with the business of what-ifs.
Not now, anyway.
It's business as usual for the Patriots, one day at a time.