Is it better to play your best team, even if that means starting some guys who are banged up? Or is it time to start looking ahead to the playoffs?
I'm not sure if anyone noticed, but the New England Patriots aren't all that healthy right now. Be it the offensive line, defensive line, receiver position, or tight end position, almost every facet on this team is missing some key guys. And while that is to be expected at this point in the season, the injury bug couldn't have hit at a worse time for the Patriots. The next two weeks not only represent the toughest two game stretch of the season thus far, but will also go a long way in deciding whether or not New England gets a much-needed week off in January. Monday's game in particular will have absolutely massive playoff implications, and if the Patriots want to hold on to the inside track for at least a 2 seed, winning is imperative.
There are probably some injured players (Vollmer, Connolly) who could play this week if they had to. There are others (Chandler Jones, Logan Mankins) who are fairly close to ready to return, but could always benefit from more rest. With what is sure to be two very physical, difficult games over the next few weeks, it is going to be critical to find the balance between keeping everyone healthy and making a strong push for the top seed.
Which begs the question: what is the best strategy from a coaching standpoint? Should the questionable guys play this weekend in order to give the Pats the best chance to win, or should they field a weaker team with the postseason in mind?
On one hand, it really is impossible to overstate just how valuable that 1st round playoff bye is. It's a chance to get healthy, install some new wrinkles, and spend more time preparing for potential Divisional Round opponents. If the Patriots are in position to attain a bye, then they should make a very strong push to do so. And the best way to win games is to have your best players on the field. All of the Patriots' recent Super Bowl appearances have come during seasons where the team was at least a two seed.
On the other hand, it's important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. The Patriots have already made the playoffs and are guaranteed to host at least one postseason game. Perhaps it's wiser to rest your injured players longer, make sure they are 100% ready for the tournament, and come into Wild Card Weekend at full strength. I'd hate for guys to come back too early, take a step back in their rehab, and miss more significant time that could potentially cost the Patriots the season.
I highly doubt that the coaching staff would play anyone before he is ready to return to action, but anyone who says that bigger games don't allow for a little more leniency regarding the injury report hasn't been paying attention for the past decade. The Patriots are going to have to play a lot better than they played last week if they want to beat Houston, and that just might mean throwing some guys back in there before they are fully ready.