After Sunday night's loss to the 49ers, the Patriots are going to need some help to regain the No. 2 seed. With just two games to go and the Broncos playing as well as any team in the league, it looks unlikely. Which means that coach Bill Belichick is faced with his annual dilemma: should he rest players down the stretch in anticipation for a deep playoff run.
Historically, it hasn't been in Belichick's nature to sit starts because, well, this is football. And football players play football. It's why Tom Brady can often be seen under center late in the fourth-quarter of blow-out wins. It's also explains why Wes Welker was on the field in 2009 during a meaningless late-season game against the Texans when he tore his ACL.
But this is different; New England is likely destined for the No. 3 seed, which means they'll be playing on wild-card weekend. The team had a season-high 19 players listed as questionable last week and now's the time to get them healthy. Not as preventative measure but as a treatment option.
ESPNBoston.com's Mike Rodak offers up a few worthy candidates:
* LB Brandon Spikes. "Hobbled by knee and ankle injuries in recent weeks, Spikes appears to be the most banged-up player on the Patriots' defense."
* TE Rob Gronkowski. "It might make more sense to give Gronkowski another two weeks to continue to heal, even though he was spotted Monday without a cast."
* OLs Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer, Dan Connelly. "All worked their way back to play in the team's past two games, but it's unlikely any of them are playing at full health."
So which team might be headed to Gillette Stadium to face the Pats in the wild-card round? With the top two teams getting that weekend off (right now, that's the Texans and Broncos), it means that New England will face either the No. 5 or No. 6 seed depending on whether they hold onto the No. 3 seed (which seems like a certainty at this point).
Assuming they do, the Pats would host the Bengals (8-6) or the Steelers (7-7) (the two teams meet this weekend and the winner's in the playoffs). Of course, if the Ravens lose out and the Steelers win out, then Baltimore becomes the No. 6 seed and they'd have to face the Pats. This assumes, of course, that the fifth-seed Colts wins at least one more regular-season game.
So, yeah, a lot can still happen.