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Patriots Should Play to Win Sunday

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Best Bet: Secure Best Seed
Avoiding Injures Is Simply 'Playing Scared'

Holding back Sunday against the Tennessee Titans ultimately would be a mistake.

I can think of only one reason the New England Patriots should not throw everything at Tennessee: avoidance of injury. You can argue that point if you want. It has some merit. Some.

But, to me, that's "playing scared," and that's no way to play football, and it's especially no way to play football the week before the playoffs.

Sure, there are legitimate injury concerns. Players who aren't close to 100 percent should probably take at least part of the game off. Vince Wilfork, Kevin Faulk, Ben Watson. You need these guys ready for the playoffs. Of course there's a price to be paid. Sitting them means you probably can't rest defensive lineman Mike Wright, who, in relief of Wilfork, has been fantastic.

The player most people are concerned about is quarterback Tom Brady, especially after Jacksonville's Clint Ingram viciously speared Brady in the back. Brady has missed a portion of practice the last two days, and speculation is rampant that he's hurt more than he let on in his press conference Wednesday.

There's an easy solution there: "Don't run the ball, Tom." While there's no reason to play scared, there's equally no reason to play recklessly.

Then there's the whole "Who would you want to face in the first round?" debate.

No debate here. I'm not concerned with who the Patriots play in the first round. I'm more concerned with who they play in the second and third -- and where.

There are five teams New England could face. The most likely are the New York Jets and the Denver Broncos, both 9-6 heading into Week 17. All currently at 8-7 are Jacksonville, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Kansas City Chiefs. Whether the No. 3 or No. 4 seed, the Patriots would play any of them at home next weekend.

The problem with wanting to face one or the other is that it's not strictly up to the Patriots and whether they win or lose. Denver currently holds the five seed, which they maintain if they win (vs. San Francisco). They can lose and still retain the No. 6 seed with a little help, and that would give the Jets (vs. Oakland) the fifth seed.

(FYI, Jacksonville is at Kansas City and Tennessee, of course, hosts New England.)

So trying to line up an opponent in the first round is not only uncertain, it's folly.

While circumstances are less likely to work explicitly in your favor, it's better to plan for the distance, for the off chance that New England and Indianapolis both win in the first and second rounds and meet in the AFC Championship. In that case, as the No. 4 seed, the Patriots would travel to the RCA Dome. As the No. 3 seed, the horseshoes come here. (Of course Indy could still get the second seed with a win vs. Miami and a Baltimore loss vs. Buffalo.)

There are those historical, statistical reasons that one certain individual wearing a gray-brown sweatshirt would say are irrelevant.

New England has won three of the last five Super Bowls. The two years another team won The Big Game, the Patriots lost two games in December (2-2 in 2002) and lost their final game of the season (2005 vs. Miami). The other three seasons, the Patriots lost, at most, one game from December on and never lost the final regular season game.

The playoffs are about play well and playing consistently. Losing in December and half-playing games only leads to poor play in January. If you want evidence of that, look at that the other team that's going to end up with the No. 3 or No. 4 seed.