We won’t know for sure whether or not the Patriots are resting their starters in Week 17 until the final whistle Sunday against the Dolphins. That’s the nature of rooting for a team coached by Bill Belichick. As of right now though, the internet/sports radio guessing machines seem to suggest that the Pats won’t rest their starters in the season’s final week. That’s the right call.
It’s logical to think, “The Pats lost out on homefield advantage last year, and they probably would’ve beaten the Broncos if the AFC Championship had been in Foxboro and not Denver, so they shouldn’t let history repeat itself.” That’s fair, but that’s actually not the reason that the Pats need to lock up the 1 seed. Let’s be real, the Pats should beat the Raiders by a touchdown or two even if the game is in Oakland. Derek Carr is a damn good quarterback, and Matt McGloin is definitely not a damn good quarterback. Oakland is currently ranked 8th in total DVOA according to Football Outsiders, but that’s only because their 7th ranked defense buoys their 22nd ranked defense (and 13th ranked special teams.) That #7 ranking is gonna drop juuuuust a little bit, and we shouldn’t be concerned about New England traveling to Oakland.
There is another opponent lurking, however, that should worry you. If the Pats fall to the 2 seed on Sunday, then they’ll most likely have to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional Round. While that game promises to be an incredible one, and while the NFL would be thrilled for the ratings it would bring, it’s a very scary game for the Patriots.
Remember, even when the Pats beat the Steel Curtain in October, the game was in doubt for a large portion of the contest. The Steelers had the ball down 14-10 in the 3rd quarter, and luckily they only got a field goal on that drive. The Pats then faced a 3rd and 7 from the outskirts of Stephen Gostkowski’s field goal range, and Brady connected with Gronk for a 36 yard TD pass. From that point on, New England was in control, and the Steelers were done.
Here’s the thing: Big Ben wasn’t playing in that game, and Rob Gronkowski was. Even though the Pats would be facing the Steelers in the playoffs in Foxborough, the Ben/Gronk swap makes a bigger difference than homefield advantage, as important as that is.
The Steelers can drop 40 points on any defense in the league, and their porous defense (which surprisingly ranks 9th on Football Outsiders) will look much less susceptible when they don’t have to prepare for Gronk. The Steelers are clearly the toughest matchup for the Patriots among the AFC teams in the postseason, and Pats fans should root hard for the Pats to not have to face them in the playoffs. That 2-3 game scares me, and it should scare you too. Root for the Pats to win on Sunday so that they don’t have to face the Steelers in the Divisional Round.