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Patriots have history of playing starters in season finale with homefield advantage at stake

Bill Belichick was honest when he said he wasn’t thinking about sitting his players.

The New England Patriots have to make a tough decision of whether or not to rest key starters in the season finale against the Miami Dolphins. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick decided to rest captains LB Dont’a Hightower and ST Matthew Slater against the New York Jets, but held his cards close to the vest about the Dolphins game.

“This isn’t like a preseason game where you have 75 guys on your roster,” Belichick said on Monday. “This is a regular season game. I don’t really understand that whole line of questioning [of resting starters]. I’m not saying I’m a great mathematician or anything but the numbers just don’t add up for that type of conversation so there’s no point in even getting involved in it.”

While Belichick is being coy- he’s right that only 7 players can be inactive and there aren’t, say, five back-up offensive linemen so some starters and key players will have to participate- Belichick is no stranger to resting his starters after a quick start to the season finale. Most notably, QB Tom Brady and most of the starters rested for much of the 2014 season finale against the Buffalo Bills with homefield advantage locked up.

But it’s also worth noting that Belichick and the Patriots rarely rest in the finale if playoff seeding is on the line.

In 2012, the Patriots were competing with the Denver Broncos for the #1 seed in the AFC and they actually rushed TE Rob Gronkowski back from his forearm injury to play in the season finale. The Patriots were also vying for homefield advantage in 2013 as all starters played in the finale against the Buffalo Bills.

In both cases, the Patriots didn’t claim homefield advantage.

The 2015 season seems to be the major exception, to a certain extent. The Patriots needed to win in the finale against the Dolphins to claim homefield advantage and LB Dont’a Hightower, DE Chandler Jones, and RT Sebastian Vollmer didn’t play. The Patriots also could have rushed WR Julian Edelman back from his foot injury, like they did with Gronkowski in 2012, but they opted to leave him inactive. The coaches rested their stars with the game on the line.

And the game itself was worse. The coaching staff inexplicably called 21 rushing plays during the 26 offensive snaps in the first half (80.8%!) as the Dolphins took a 10-3 halftime lead. Instead of building an early lead and crushing the will of Miami, the coaching staff foolishly let the Dolphins stick around.

In the second half, the Patriots offense had to do damage control as the offense called 22 passing plays over the 28 offensive snaps in the second half (78.6%), an almost exact reversal of the first half. Every player that was active played until the end, with Brady and Gronkowski playing up to the final drive, and the defensive starters playing to the final whistle.

The Patriots are looking for a win to secure homefield advantage this year so look for every healthy starter to play a role. New England has done a good job of staying healthy up to this point in the year, with Hightower and Slater the only question marks- and don’t be surprised if Hightower rested against the Jets with the finale against the Dolphins in mind, too.