The Patriots have a chance for a first round bye and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. They're also dealing with numerous injuries. Should they sit or play certain players?
Bengals Win, Colts Win: Both will finish the season with 11 victories, and tied with the Patriots heading into the 430pm games. The Patriots have to win in order to keep the first round bye. If the Patriots lose, the Bengals win the tiebreaker and gain the first round bye due to their victories over both the Patriots and the Colts. With a Colts win and a Patriots loss, the Colts will have a better conference record and the Patriots will fall into the fourth seed. The result is the Patriots hosting the Chiefs.
Bengals Win, Colts lose: Bengals would beat the Patriots in the tiebreaker, locking the Patriots into the third seed. In all likelihood, the Patriots would end up hosting the Dolphins (The Bengals victory over the Ravens would open up the door for the Dolphins to clam the final playoff spot against the Jets).
Bengals Lose, Colts win: The Colts would beat the Patriots in the tiebreaker, locking the Patriots into the third seed. With the Ravens having beaten the Bengals, all signs would point to the Ravens coming up to New England for a rematch.
Bengals Lose, Colts lose: Patriots keep their 2nd seed, at the worst. First round bye.
In short, if the Patriots don't win, they have the cross their fingers and hope that the Ravens can beat the Bengals (possible) and that the Jaguars can beat the Colts (don't count on it). The Colts have shown that they can tag the bad teams of the league (37-3 vs Jags in Week 4, 25-3 vs Texans in Week 15) and the league's elite (wins vs Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, Kansas City), even if they struggle against the mid tier teams (losses to Miami, San Diego, St. Louis, Arizona, and Cincinnati). Don't expect both teams to lose.
If they both do happen to lose (extremely unlikely), then the Patriots could do well to rest their injured players. However, should one of the teams win, then the Patriots have plenty to play for against the Bills. Not only do the Pats have to fight to retain their first round bye, the league has flexed the game to the same time as the Denver game- should the Broncos lose to the Raiders (unlikely), the Patriots would be playing for homefield advantage and the first overall seed.
In my opinion, the Patriots will end up having to play their best against the Bills in order to retain a first round bye. As a result, they'll have to figure out how to manage their injuries.
WR Josh Boyce (ankle) and FS Devin McCourty (concussion) would not have practiced today and it would appear likely that Boyce would be held out until his ankle is fully healed. McCourty, however, would have clear the concussion protocols in order to play on Sunday. With how the Patriots handled Nate Solder's concussion, I wouldn't be surprised if they held out McCourty, or at least considered him a game time decision (depending on outcomes of the early game).
McCourty would likely be replaced by rookie Duron Harmon who, while lacking McCourty's range and experience, can provide a reasonable level of ability to cover the back end. The Bills feature a speedster in Marquise Goodwin, who can take the top off the defense, so a reliable safety will be extremely important.
On the limited side, Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard, and Steve Gregory are likely to play, as are wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. Linemen Marcus Cannon (ankle) and Nate Solder (concussion) are likely plays, while Will Svitek (ankle) is probably day-to-day.
At corner, Logan Ryan and Aqib Talib are the likely starters, so expected Arrington to come off the bench in the slot and for Dennard to play if ever needed. On the line, the return of Solder can push Mankins back in to guard and move rookie Josh Kline back to a reserve role. Dobson and Thompkins should give Tom Brady his full complement of wide receivers, solidifying the outside spot.
RB Shane Vereen is a giant question mark as groin injuries are difficult to gauge. Vereen remains the Patriots most versatile weapon and the offense is obviously better when he's healthy. In week 1, he absolutely demolished the Bills to the tune of 21 touches and 159 yards. I expect the Patriots to roll with LeGarrette Blount in the lead spot and Stevan Ridley as the spellback. Hopefully the Patriots don't need a healthy Vereen to gain a big lead, although Brandon Bolden could be the expected replacement.
The other limited players were linebackers Dane Fletcher (groin) and Brandon Spikes (knee). Expect Spikes to play against the potent Bills running game, while Fletcher will be a game time decision. Rookie Jamie Collins and sophomore Dont'a Hightower will likely be the backs lining up with Spikes.
If the Patriots need to play for a first round bye, expect an all-hands-on-deck approach, with McCourty, Solder, and Vereen all playing active roles. If for some crazy chance the Patriots solidify a first round bye before their game, I'd expect them to risk losing the game in favor of resting their starters for the long haul.
(Note: Unlike the team, I'll be taking week 17 off. See you in the new year!)