If for some reason, you believed that the Patriots would choose to rest their starters to prepare for the playoffs in their week 17 match-up against the Miami Dolphins - think again. At his Friday press conference, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick squashed that posibility:
"There’s nothing we can do to help our situation unless we win. We have to win for anything to happen positive. That’s no guarantee that it will, but that’s the first prerequisite. We are operating under that premise. We’ve got to go out there and win. If we want things to be better, we have to help ourselves. We have to do that first. That’s certainly what it’s all about."
Belichick continued, explaining the importance of a first round bye:
"It’s one less game you have to play. In this league at this time of year, you know you’re playing a good team. Whoever you play, they’re going to be good. Having to play one less game, I think there’s some advantage to that, definitely."
So there you have it, the Patriots will play to win Sunday against the Dolphins.
As for the actual scenarios, the Patriots could be eliminated from contention for the 1st seed by the time they kick-off against the Dolphins at 4:25 ET on Sunday. That would be the case if the Houston Texans travel to beat the Indianapolis Colts (that is a 1:00 PM game).
Either way, the Patriots will technically remain in contention for a bye when they kick off Sunday. A Patriots win and a loss by the Broncos against the Chiefs (4:25 ET kick-off), would also give the Patriots the needed rest wildcard weekend.