Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown focuses more on bigger-picture issues than Sunday's game between the Patriots and Dolphins at Gillette Stadium (1 p.m. ET):
Mike: This situation is a bit different from the norm, with the Patriots having already solidified the top seed in the AFC playoffs. When you were playing, and there were finales like this, how did you approach them?
Tedy: A vivid memory I have is the week leading up to the San Francisco 49ers game at the end of the 2004 season. We had the bye locked up. I remember Romeo Crennel, our defensive coordinator, talking to us in the defensive meeting room. He said, "I know there is all this talk about resting, but I'll tell you right now you're playing the whole game." He really challenged us. Even though we had wrapped things up, he said, "You only play 16 of them, so we're going to play it. Our rest will come next week during the bye." We went out there and played hard. I remember going up to Romeo afterward and saying, "That's the way I wanted to finish the season."
Mike: The Patriots ended up winning that game, 21-7. Coincidentally, it was on the same date as this year's finale, Jan. 2.
Tedy: I remember how coach Bill Belichick handled it, as well. The game was in hand, it was the fourth quarter, and he either called a timeout or, during a clock stoppage, he selectively pulled out certain players from the defense or offense so the crowd could give them an ovation for what they did in the regular season. I always thought that was a classy gesture by coach Belichick. Look for that to possibly happen this week.
Mike: It's a bit unusual as we assess this Patriots team heading into the season finale, because you really have one eye already ahead on the playoffs. I think we could both agree that a big part of this week for Belichick is managing certain parts of the roster so some players have a chance to be at their healthiest come playoff time. I don't expect we'll see offensive lineman Dan Connolly (concussion) or defensive lineman Mike Wright (concussion). There is no need. With that eye toward the playoffs, let's each pick a team that we think could be the toughest matchup for the Patriots.
Tedy: When you get to the playoffs, it's all about matchups. You could run into a team that you might have matchup problems against, a team that always plays you well, and that can make it more difficult for you. There are a handful of teams that, if they come through Gillette Stadium, could give the Patriots a run for their money. Some might say a No. 2 seed like Pittsburgh or a No. 3 seed like Kansas City with the former Patriots assistants on staff, but I think one team that has been flying under the radar is the Indianapolis Colts. I say that because if they come in here again, can you really count on Peyton Manning throwing three more interceptions? Can you count on him playing that poorly again at the end of a game, throwing that interception to James Sanders? They're getting running back Joseph Addai back, and he would have a couple of games under his belt if they make it to Foxborough. Gary Brackett, the middle linebacker, is back on defense. And they have those defensive ends in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who match up well against the Patriots' offensive tackles. It's that rivalry game where they always seem to play each other close. So if the Colts were to come into Gillette Stadium, I think that's a matchup that could possibly be dangerous for the Patriots.
Mike: They would be my No. 2 team. I see the No. 1 toughest matchup as the club that came in here last year and put a 33-14 playoff beating on the Patriots -- the Baltimore Ravens. I like the way the Ravens play defense. They're big, physical and tough. Of all the defenses in the AFC, I think they match up the best against the Patriots' attack. We also know they won't be intimidated coming to Gillette. One of the interesting parts of this final weekend of the NFL season will be how the playoff seedings unfold. It will likely be the Colts at No. 4 and the Ravens at No. 5, so they would play each other in the wild-card round. That will be a great contest, and when you talk about matchups it might be the worst possible matchup for the Ravens.
Tedy: On the Ravens, I'm always talking about the mental state of a team, because that's what playoff football is often all about. How strong mentally are you? Your emotional fire. The Ravens have that confidence, so I think that's something to consider. Along those lines, one of the things I'm thinking about is the mentality of the Patriots players and having to beat a team you've already beaten during the regular season. Of the five other playoff teams in the AFC, assuming the Colts are in, the Patriots have topped four of them. So these players have to adopt the mindset that these teams are just as big of a threat. How will they handle that, knowing they are the clear No. 1 seed? Maturity-wise, with those young players, you have to realize that what you've done in the past doesn't mean anything.
Mike: I would imagine that would be Bill Belichick's first message to players next week when the playoff preparations get sparked up -- everyone is 0-0 now. From what I've seen from players this year, they have digested what Belichick says, taken it to heart and applied it in their preparation and on the field. So I'm going to stick my neck out there a bit and say that I don't think that will be a major issue for this young team, even though they don't have a tremendous amount of playoff experience on the roster.
Tedy: Let's switch things up here a little bit. Instead of dissecting the matchup on Sunday, let's both pick two things we'd like to see on the field Sunday.
Mike: I'll start with rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski. He has nine touchdown receptions on the season and I'd like to see him finish with 10. One of the big questions with Gronkowski coming out of the draft was how his previously injured back might affect him, but it's notable to me that I don't think he's missed a single practice this year. His consistency has been rewarded with solid production, and to put up double-digit touchdowns in his first season, to possibly lead the league at his position, would be a great accomplishment.
Tedy: I don't know how much Tom Brady is going to play, and I don't know how much they should play him. He's been missing Wednesday practices the last half of the year and has been listed with a foot injury on the team's injury report. Does he need a little extra rest? Regardless, I want to see Brian Hoyer, the backup quarterback, in a situation where he's playing a regular-season game and it's on him to win it for the New England Patriots. I think he has potential. I like his attitude and confidence. He's shown whenever he's been in there that the moment has never been too big for him.
Mike: The second thing for me is rookie receiver Taylor Price, the third-round draft choice out of Ohio. He has been inactive for every game this year, still learning the system, and I can sense from communicating with readers in chats and mailbags that they are anxious to get a look at him. This seems like the right opportunity to have him active and give him something to build off.
Tedy: I'll also be focusing on BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the running back who has done such good things for the team this year. He has 928 rushing yards on the season. He needs 72, so I want to see him get that to hit the 1,000-yard mark. That's a benchmark for a running back, and I think he deserves it based on the contributions he's made to the team.
Mike: Before we wrap this up, let's answer a question from a Patriots follower. "Ryan from Quincy" writes into the Patriots mailbag on ESPNBoston and asks, "Who do you think will win Coach of the Year?"
Tedy: Well, Ryan, coach Belichick has done a fantastic job of coaching this year. The way he has gotten so many young players playing at such a high level shows how great of a coach he is, but when you go from last place in your division to first place, that's a coaching job that deserves recognition. That's what Todd Haley, head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, has done, and I think he should win the award.
Mike: As for predictions, this is awfully hard to do without knowing how the Patriots are going to handle their personnel. Like you, I think highly of backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. With the Dolphins having little to play for, I'll go Patriots 24, Dolphins 17.