Success in the NFL postseason is based one-hundred percent on match-ups. Having the easiest road to the Super Bowl is of vital importance.
After Sunday night's thrilling defeat at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers, the New England Patriots find themselves sitting at the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoff picture with a 10-4 record. They are one game behind the 11-3 Denver Broncos and one game ahead of the 9-5 Baltimore Ravens. With the division already clinched, the Patriots are guaranteed to finish in the top-4 of the AFC.
Now, the loss against the 49ers has all but ended the Patriots' hopes at securing a playoff bye-week, as they'd need to see two losses from the Texans -- who finish the season at home vs. Minnesota (8-6) and at Indianapolis (9-5) -- or one loss from the Broncos -- who will host Cleveland (5-9) and Kansas City (2-12) -- in order to reach one of those top-2 spots.
Therefore, the idea of resting the starters and beginning to prepare for the playoffs with an intent to lose their final two games of the season -- at Jacksonville (2-12) and vs. Miami (6-8) -- would be the best move for the Patriots to make.
IF the Patriots are to lose their final two games and the Ravens win just one of their remaining two -- vs. New York Giants (8-6) and at Cincinnati (8-6) --, New England would fall to the No. 4 spot in the AFC.
Currently, the Patriots are the No. 3 seed and would likely face a road to the Super Bowl that looks a lot like this...
Wild Card: vs. No. 6 Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7)
Divisional: AT No. 2 Denver Broncos (11-3)
Conference Championship: AT No. 1 Houston Texans (12-2)
Between Ben Roethlisberger's championship experience, an extraordinarily strong pass defense and a solid pass-rush, even escaping round one will be a difficult task for New England. The divisional round would then send them out west to Denver, where the Broncos have been a notoriously tough team to beat. If there's any one team that nobody in football wants to play right now, it's Peyton Manning and the Broncos. The Patriots will want to delay that potential showdown for as long as possible.
HOWEVER, by dropping their final two games and falling to the No. 4 seed, the Patriots' road to New Orleans could look like this...
Wild Card: vs. No. 5 Indianapolis Colts (9-5)
Divisional: AT No. 1 Houston Texans (12-2)
Conference Championship: AT No. 2 Denver Broncos (11-3) OR No. 3 Baltimore (9-5)
The Patriots have already beaten the Colts in Foxboro, and they did so in convincing fashion. A first-round match-up with an inexperienced Indianapolis squad could be just what the doctor ordered for New England. In the second round, the Pats would travel to Houston to take on a Texans team that they've just beat by four touchdowns. The AFC title game could mean they'd have to make that trip out to Denver anyways, but the Broncos will have their hands full with Baltimore in the divisional round.
Of course, this isn't exactly a foolproof plan, as arch-rival Baltimore controls whether or not this plan could work for the Patriots. If they are to lose both of their remaining games, the Patriots would remain the No. 3 seed in the AFC, and if they lose their potential wild card match-up against a No. 6 seeded Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, this entire argument would be rendered moot as New England would be travelling to Denver in the divisional round, anyways.
What this all comes down to is that the Patriots really have nothing to lose from taking the foot off the gas in these final two games. With the division crown already in hand, the Patriots cannot fall below the No. 4 spot and will be guaranteed a home game in round one. Best-case scenario, you're the 10-6 No. 4 seed and facing the easiest possible road to the Super Bowl. Worst case, you're the 10-6 No. 3 seed with a home playoff game upcoming.
In the meantime, you're giving a couple weeks of valuable time to rest to banged-up stars like Logan Mankins, Rob Gronkowkski, Wes Welker, Chandler Jones and Alfonzo Dennard. It's a win-win situation for the Patriots.
While I don't believe that this is at all likely to occur, it's certainly something worth considering. It's near mind-boggling how a pair of regular season losses against a pair of sub-par opponents could mean a trip to Super Bowl 47 for the New England Patriots.