Every NFL team wants to win its last game of the season, but not one of them wants that game to happen in Week 17.
The New England Patriots have not been in a situation like this for quite some time now. The last time they played their regular season finale without a follow-up playoff game already scheduled happened in 2008; the last time playing in Week 17 while already knowing that there would be no postseason football on the horizon came in 2000. At least until this year.
New England’s game against the New York Jets on Sunday did not change the outcome of the team’s season. Entering the weekend with a 6-9 record, there were only two things at stake: draft position and ending a disappointing season on a high note. The Patriots were able to do just that thanks to a 28-14 win over their division rivals.
Following that victory, head coach Bill Belichick praised his team’s performance
“It was good to end a disappointing season on a positive note, but that still is certainly not where we wanted to be here at the end of the year,” Belichick said. “Today was today and all we could do was control today.”
The Patriots entered the game already having been eliminated from the playoff tournament. A Week 14 loss against the Los Angeles Rams essentially sealed their fate, with a defeat one week later versus the Miami Dolphins mathematically ending all hopes of reaching the postseason a 12th straight year. Getting blown out by the Buffalo Bills one week after that game had therefore no impact on the team’s outlook.
And yet, finishing the season strong by improving to 7-9 was a priority for the team.
Disappointing couple of weeks here, but these guys came back and really bounced back — had a good week of practice, had a good week of focus, and played competitively today,” Belichick said. “It’s always good to see some of the plays that we execute in practice be executed well in the game situations, we had some of those today.
“Obviously, the turnovers were a big part of the game: not turning the ball over, and getting two turnovers. That was good. We played pretty good situational football, scored in the red area, had a red area stop, converted better on third down. Those things were helpful. Ultimately, it was a good field position day for us in the kicking game with the returns and the punting, kickoff coverage. Overall, we felt like we had a little advantage there.”
While the game against the Jets was a close one for two-and-a-half quarters, New England started pulling away in the third period by playing some solid complementary football — something that was not always on display this season. The Patriots being able to effectively do that came as a minor surprise considering not just their recent trajectory but also the fact that the team was missing some valuable contributors due to injury.
Despite the challenges, however, Belichick’s team was able to compete well and make big plays in all three phases versus the Jets. Despite falling behind 14-7 in the early third quarter, the Patriots were therefore able to turn their fortunes around and come away victoriously.
“Just proud of the way that the team and the players competed this week,” said Belichick. “We had several guys that didn’t play — David [Andrews] and Shaq [Mason], Terez [Hall], [Anfernee] Jennings, [Tashawn] Bower, a bunch of the linebackers on defense. Chase [Winovich] came back in after he hurt his hand, and had it clubbed up, and finished the game. Things like that, we can go right down the roster, right down the line.”
Despite their ailments, the Patriots were able to play one of their most complete games of the season versus a Jets team that had won its previous two contests after starting 0-13. Winning the turnover and field position battles was key, but so was the team’s toughness as Belichick pointed out.
“Just a lot of examples of toughness, competitiveness, guys that love playing football,” he said. “I just have a lot of respect for the coaches and the players, the members of this team. Obviously, the results this year weren’t what we have hoped for, but it doesn’t change my appreciation for their efforts and what they tried to do.
“Guys like Cody Davis and Ja’Whaun Bentley, Lawrence Guy were banged up. We’ve had some guys playing on the offensive line, Korey played most of the second half at tackle; we know he hasn’t played much this year. Some guys that have gotten an opportunity to play and — not that that was the goal, they were forced into it — in a way their hard work paid off and at least gave them an opportunity to do that.”
New England’s season finale might have been little more than a dress rehearsal for the 2021 offseason, but it was obvious Belichick liked what he saw from some of his players.
Even when it is not followed by a trophy celebration, winning the final game of the season can therefore feel good.