And just like that, courtesy of Peyton Manning and the month of December, the New England Patriots have clinched homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
We all know the drill by now; what was once an extremely meaningful game against the Buffalo Bills is now little more than a chance for some playoff preparation and some much needed rest for the players nursing injuries. And even though Manning's latest winter choke job is less than 12 hours old, the discussions and debates have already begun:
How long should the starters play? Who should sit? How many snaps should Brady play? How much bubble wrap should Bob Kraft buy, and will completely covering Rob Gronkowski in that bubble wrap help prevent him experiencing any unforeseen injuries, or will Gronk just end up rolling around on the ground and charging face first into parked cars in an effort to pop them all?
These are the questions you can afford to ask when the last game of the season doesn't mean a thing.
And if you're like me, the very first thing that went through your mind last night as Dre Kirkpatrick caught Manning's soft, floaty wobbler and took it back for the game-sealing touchdown was an emphatic "SIT EVERYBODY!" The last thing New England needs at this point is a bad injury to a key player in a game that doesn't mean a thing.
However, if the starters only play a few series on Sunday, that means that almost three full weeks will pass before they take the field again for a meaningful snap. Furthermore, the Patriots are coming off a game in which the offense wasn't exactly in rhythm and the O-line had one of their worst games since September. The postseason is about much more than being healthy - although that's a big part of it - and generating momentum and staying hot can ultimately be the deciding factor in who hoists the Lombardi Trophy in February. Just ask the 2007 Giants. A dominating, efficient performance against Buffalo could be just what the doctor ordered to get the Patriots playing angry coming into the Divisional Round.
So what's really the best way to go? Do you sit everyone to prevent injury, or do you fine tune your strategy and play your starters to keep them honed in and ensure the wheels keep rolling?
The problem is that, if you look at past seasons and teams who played all the way through the playoffs versus teams who rested starters and enjoyed a bye, it's all over the map. You can point to plenty of teams who rested everyone, enjoyed the time to recover, and rolled to a championship on healthy backs and legs. You can also point to teams that got hot at the right time, didn't give anyone any time to cool off, and let that momentum carry them to the Super Bowl. You can use Wes Welker against the Texans in 2009 as proof positive that there is no reason to play the starters in a meaningless game, just as you can make the case that, regardless of playoff seeding, the starters will always play at least a few series before coming off, and Welker's injury would have happened regardless. I'm sure there is some kind of metric you can run to see if there is any real historic edge to rest over rust (paging Mr. Richard Hill), but at the end of the day you can really make a case for doing both.
So which camp are you in? Team Rest, or Team Rust?
Personally, I'm very firmly in the "sit everyone" camp, as I think that this coaching staff and locker room is strong enough to ensure that there is no lapse in efficiency and that the Patriots will come out swinging in January. That goes double for Gronk, Revis, and Brady, as without those three guys - and the Patriots need all of them - this team won't win a championship. However, the Patriots are also one of the teams that have gotten burned by the bye in years past, and this past Jets game wasn't exactly what you want to hang your hat on in terms of confidence builders heading into the playoffs, so if you disagree, you certainly have a case. Hindsight is always 20/20 and it's easy to say "see! They should have done the opposite!" if something bad ends up happening, but either way, this is the discussion you want to be having coming into Week 17.
This isn't a discussion that will be going away anytime soon, so if you're already sick of it, feel free to tune out until about 12:59 PM on Sunday.