By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — As the history books will show you, the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2014 and 2016. In the year sandwiched between, the Patriots could have won a Super Bowl but did not.
They came up short, and it had a lot to do with the Patriots did — or rather, did not do — in Week 17 against an inferior opponent.
That year, the 12-3 Patriots went down to Miami to face a 5-10 Dolphins team that had absolutely nothing to play for. A Patriots victory would have secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But the Patriots came up short.
In the first half, they employed arguably the worst game plan of the entire Bill Belichick era. They handed the ball to Steven Jackson time after time after time, and Tom Brady was allowed to throw just one pass in the first quarter. He was 4-for-5 at halftime.
It appeared to be an effort to preserve Brady’s health; that mission failed, too. Brady limped off the podium that afternoon.
As a result of the 20-10 loss in Miami, the Patriots entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed. Three weeks later, they lost in Denver. The Broncos went on to win the Super Bowl.
This year, the Patriots are in the same position. They’re hoping for a different outcome against a likewise inferior opponent in Week 17.
This time, it’s the New York Jets coming to town, boasting the same 5-10 record that Miami carried into Week 17 of 2015. One major — major — difference this time around is that it’s going to be cold on Sunday. Very cold. Extraordinarily, painfully, awfully cold. The Patriots, as we know, are very good when it’s cold out. Football players also tend to not enjoy the cold. They don’t like to get hit, they don’t like to stiffen up, and if they’re on a 5-10 team that’s minutes away from the offseason, they tend to just want to get in the shower and go home for a few months.
At a certain point in that situation, self-preservation becomes priority No. 1.
But as we saw in 2015, if a team is in a close game through 30 minutes, they tend to remain interested.
The onus, then, will fall on the Patriots to jump out to an early lead and diminish the Jets’ hopes of ending their season on a positive note.
And when it comes to that game, here’s what to watch for.
The New Guy
Nothing amplifies the drama in Week 17 quite like the stoking of a rivalry. Suffice it to say, James Harrison’s signing with the Patriots this week did just that.
Many Steelers ripped Harrison for his exit, despite his lack of playing time all season long in Pittsburgh. Harrison said it was merely a business decision.
In any event, it will all be forgotten as just a bunch of unimportant hoopla if Harrison doesn’t actually play.
Against the Jets, you figure he should be able to get some playing time. For one, the Patriots’ front seven could always use a boost. But more importantly, if the Patriots do hope to get some production out of Harrison in January, then they’ll want to get him some live reps in game action to catch him up to speed — both physically and mentally.
And if Harrison picks up a sack or makes a play that helps the Patriots secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC over the Steelers? That might make the local news.
Tom Brady has been the league’s MVP this season, and he deserves the award. At the same time, for the past month, the award has been Brady’s to lose. And he’s nearly lost it. If he puts forth another performance that’s in line with his last four? He could open the door to a fringe candidate like Todd Gurley or Russell Wilson.
Over his last four games, Brady has thrown four touchdowns and five interceptions, posting a passer rating of 81.5. Whether it’s an injury, the weather, some bad matchups or some bad luck, the net result has not been great for the man who began the year with 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
A strong showing on Sunday — even, say, a 250-yard, two-touchdown day with no interceptions — would go a long way toward securing the MVP award. More importantly for the Patriots, it would be a promising final chapter to the regular season for Brady before the games really begin to count.
We’ve seen Bill Belichick go the extra mile to allow his players to go out of their way to achieve statistical marks in Week 17 of a season in 2007 with Brady and Randy Moss. Would the coach allow Rob Gronkowski the chance to make some extra dough?
The feeling is that no, Belichick won’t alter Sunday’s game plan to allow Gronkowski to either catch 11 passes or gain 116 receiving yards in order to automatically activate an extra $2.5 million in contract incentives.
Nevertheless, keeping an eye on Gronkowski’s stats will be a worthy sub-plot in the event the game gets out of hand. Plus, the third way Gronkowski can activate the full $5.5 million in incentives is to earn First Team All-Pro honors. That’s something he might have already wrapped up, but adding a touchdown or two on Sunday to get to 10 on the season probably wouldn’t hurt his case.
It’s honestly tough to tell what in the world is going on down in Pittsburgh this week. When the media entered the Steelers locker room on Wednesday, all hell broke loose, with players ripping James Harrison left and right, talking about the player sleeping and snoring through meetings and angrily leaving stadiums and not visiting teammates in the hospital. It was wild.
But a bit disordered is the way Mike Tomlin likes it, and so when Marcus Gilbert nonchalantly said that Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell won’t be playing this week, it was difficult to discern whether he was being too honest with the media or whether he was creating a fake storyline for the media to chase.
But with Roethlisberger not practicing, and Bell missing practices too, it seems as though Tomlin is resting his stars, accepting the fact that the Patriots will beat the Jets. Considering Tomlin’s already lost Antonio Brown to injury this month, his caution is understandable.
So, given the Steelers’ approach to Sunday’s game … it may be possible … that the Cleveland Browns … actually … have a chance … to win … the football game.
I know that’s nuts, but it seems apparent that the Steelers aren’t treating this weekend’s game with any level of care. And with the Browns staring 0-16 in the face, personal pride may win the day.
If that’s the case, and the Browns are up on the Steelers somewhere in the 3 o’clock hour, the celebration may begin early in Foxboro. Brian Hoyer may enter the game as a human victory cigar, making for a rather smooth ending to the regular season.
With either a Patriots win or a Steelers loss, the Patriots could secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC for the sixth time in the past 11 seasons and third time in the past four seasons.