FOXBORO — On Tuesday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, in his final press conference of the decade, Tom Brady left no doubt as to where he’ll be on Sunday.
“I’m expecting to play the whole game,” Brady said, who added that Patriots coach Bill Belichick gave him the word he’ll be in there in the regular-season finale against the Texans at Reliant Stadium.
“He says, ‘You’ll play. Don’t worry about that. You’ll be playing.’ ”
Win or lose on Sunday, the Patriots are locked into the postseason, thanks to their division-clinching victory over the Jaguars last Sunday. However, there are still some possibilities that still need to be worked out — New England can sew up the No. 3 seed in the AFC with a win and a Cincinnati loss to the Jets on Sunday night. The Patriots will finish No. 4 if they lose and Cincinnati wins. And if the two tie, then seeding will come down to a strength-of-victory calculation that is still to be determined.
But the fact that they are already in the playoffs means the Patriots could give the opportunity to rest their starters in a game that’s relatively meaningless to them. (Las Vegas certainly thinks New England is going to go with the backups early — Houston is anywhere between a 7.5- to 9-point favorite as of early Friday morning.)
The situation is similar to 2005, when the Patriots were already in the playoffs when the regular-season finale rolled around. In that one, Brady took a handful of snaps before turning things over to Matt Cassel, and New England dropped a two-point decision at home to the Dolphins. The loss allowed the Patriots to avoid the Steelers in the first round of the postseason — based on Brady’s comments, it certainly feels the same situation could be brewing Sunday.
Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley certainly feels like this might be déjà vu all over again, at least as far as the Steelers are concerned. Woodley charges that the Patriots and Bengals will lie down, allowing teams others than Pittsburgh to reach the postseason.
“All of them lay down,’’ Woodley said. “No one wants to see Pittsburgh in it. That’s just how it is. Everybody knows we’re a dangerous team once we get into the playoffs, no matter how we played the whole year. Once we get into the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers is a playoff team.’’
(Of course, if the Steelers had taken care of their own business and beaten the Bengals or Browns earlier this season, Woodley wouldn’t be making such statements, but that’s neither here not there. On Thursday, Brady chuckled when he was asked if he had any reaction to the comments from Woodley, a fellow Michigan alum. “Not really. A Michigan guy, too? That surprises me,” he said. “Usually, we keep our mouths shut. I’m going to get Coach [Lloyd] Carr to call him and straighten him out.”)
Woodley’s prediction aside, the Patriots said this week that regardless of whose in there on Sunday, they’ll be playing to win.
“We want to win — point blank. I’m sure my teammates feel the same way,” said nose tackle Vince Wilfork. “That’s how we are approaching this game just like any other. We are going to go out there, prepare and practice hard. Practice the right way and try not to get into any bad habits and put it together on Sunday. Hopefully we can come out with a ‘W’. Whatever happens after that happens, but we definitely want a win, point blank.”
Here are four other things worth keeping an eye on Sunday at Reliant Stadium:
HOLD THAT LINE, MEN
The Patriots offensive line hasn’t allowed a sack over the last four games, and just 16 on the season (15 sacks of Brady and one on backup quarterback Brian Hoyer). And no New England quarterback has been sacked since the fourth quarter of the Nov. 30 loss to New Orleans, a stretch of four consecutive games that includes 240 minutes, 43 seconds of action.
“The last four games have been pretty good for us — we haven’t given up too many pressures and no sacks, so we’re happy about that,” said left guard Logan Mankins. “That’s what we strive to do every game. We want no pressures and no sacks, but we know the other team is getting paid, too, and they have good players and good rushers. The last four weeks, we’ve just come out on top in that situation.”
The stats are all the more impressive considering the fact that the Patriots have spent most of the season shuffling its line because of injury. Sebastian Vollmer and Dan Connolly have stepped in several times this season at multiple positions, spelling starters like Matt Light, Dan Koppen and Stephen Neal, while Mark LeVoir has provided excellent depth at the tackle position.
“Protection was real good yesterday, as it has been all year. Our offensive line has done a good job,” Belichick said the day after the win over Jacksonville. “It seems like we’ve had a different combination every week or every couple of weeks, whatever it’s been.”
Chances are good that the line will be able to stretch that streak well into Sunday’s game. The Texans’ pass defense is middle of the pack — it allows 216.3 yards per game, 17th in the league. And when it comes to sacking the quarterback, they’re tied for 25th in the league with 28.
CONTAINING ANDRE JOHNSON
Johnson remains a highly effective offensive option and the No. 1 reason the Texans have the second-best pass offense in the league at 290.6 yards per game. If New England is going to play this one straight up, they are going to have to slow down Johnson if they want to have a chance of winning this game.
“He’s pretty good at everything,” Belichick said earlier this week. “He’s a big target, tough after the catch. He’s like Terrell Owens, where he catches short balls and breaks tackles and runs a long way. People get up there and try to play him tighter and he runs past them. He’s good on intermediate routes, he’s good on deep routes, and he’s good on short routes, and running with the ball after the catch. He certainly attracts a lot of attention, as he should.”
The combination of Johnson and quarterback Matt Schaub has started to evoke comparisons to other classic quarterback/receiver comparisons, and for good reason: this season, Schaub has a franchise-record 4,467 yards passing, while Johnson features a league-best 1,504 receiving yards. Coupled with the 1,575 yards he had last season, Johnson is now just the second player in the history of the NFL history to post back-to-back 1,500-yard seasons.
“Me and Matt, when we’re out there playing, we’re on the same page,” Johnson said. “We both see the same things when we’re out there playing. I think that’s why we've been able to accomplish what we’ve been able to accomplish. Hopefully it’s something that’s going to get better and better.”
Expect a variety of coverages on Johnson, who has only really be slowed by one cornerback this season — New York’s Darrelle Revis, who limited him to four catches for 35 yards in the season-opener.
The Patriots go into the regular-season finale with a chance to register several career-high marks: Wes Welker needs one 10-plus catch game to break the NFL single-season record. (He has seven — Johnson had seven games with 10-plus catches in 2008.) Welker also needs one reception to match Detroit’s Herman Moore for the second-most receptions in a single season. (He currently has 122 catches on the season, one behind Moore, who set his mark in 1995.)
Welker is 21 receptions shy of Marvin Harrison’s mark of 143, set in 2002. He knows there’s not even an outside chance he gets a shot at that on Sunday.
“Outside chance? No, that’s out there, bud,” Welker said with a smile earlier this week. “Unless we’re running one-man routes or one-man reads the whole game. No, I’m just going out there and trying to play my game and trying to handle my business as far as that goes.”
A CERTAIN HOUSTON SAFETY BY THE NAME OF POLLARD
Yeah, that guy. Bernard Pollard was cut by the Chiefs earlier this season and has started the last 12 games for Houston. It’ll be the first time he’ll face Brady and the Patriots, since the 2008 season-opener where he crashed into Brady’s left knee, prematurely ending the quarterbacks’ season.
This season, he has 96 tackles and three interceptions, and by all accounts, has become a steadying influence on the Houston defense.
“He’s played really well for us,” said Texans coach Gary Kubiak. “We really haven’t had a safety that’s kind of been a rock back there for us and we took a shot on him because our defensive backs coach David Gibbs had him in Kansas City and boy, he’s played very well for us. He’s given us some stability back there. He’s given us a physical nature back there as far as playing in the box and doing those things, so we’ve been very pleased with him.”
Brady said Thursday afternoon that he hasn’t thought much about his run-in with Pollard, and hasn’t been in contact with him since that fateful September afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
“That play has really come and gone in my mind,” Brady said. “He's a really good player for them, and does some good things for them. He’s someone that we have to do a good job keeping away from the quarterback because he’s a good blitzer — he’s got three interceptions on the year, and he’s a good player. But [I have] no real other feelings other than that.”