FOXBORO -- So, you’re a Patriots fan looking for a reason to make games against 2-12 Jacksonville and 6-8 Miami interesting in the final two weeks when New England already has wrapped up a division title and playoff berth.
Forget all of the playoff scenarios and do what we should all do at this time of year and take a look inward -- as in your own team -- and keep an eye on these 10 players who offer fascinating storylines as the Patriots get primed for another postseason run.
In no particular order:
Tom Brady -- Barring an upset loss this week in Jacksonville, Brady will play the final two games of the season. There still will be something at stake in the season finale, a 1 p.m. kickoff against the Dolphins on Dec. 30. The Broncos kick off three hours later, so the chance of a first-round bye will be plenty of motivation for No. 12 to rack up more numbers. Brady needs 724 passing yards to reach 5,000 again. That’s doable, but understand he has only averaged 31 pass attempts against Jacksonville in the past and Miami’s defense always has presented pass-rush issues. Momentum is not intangible to Brady and the offense. They feed on it. Brady will look to refine the passing game, making sure it’s ready for the big stage once again.
Stevan Ridley -- For both the second-year running back and the team, all parties need to know that his confidence is there. After going through the somewhat overblown fiasco at the end of last season, the Patriots need to know they can trust Ridley with the ball. Ridley has fumbled four times this season, including twice in the last two games. Brady insisted this week he has full confidence in Ridley, despite his fumble on Sunday night (plus another that was overturned on replay because he was down). “I have confidence in everybody,” Brady said. “If you're on this roster, everyone has confidence in you. If you're out there playing on the field, it means the coach has a lot of confidence in you. I love every guy that I play with. Those guys give everything they’ve got to run hard, to protect, to do what we ask them to do, and Stevan’s done a great job this year.” Still, the Patriots need to make sure Ridley is the one showing the confidence when he runs with the ball. They need him come the postseason.
Shane Vereen -- He also lost a fumble against the 49ers Sunday night, after catching a short pass. He’s a very curious case. Which Vereen will we see? And more importantly, which Vereen can the Patriots count on in the postseason. Is he the one that blew by Bart Scott and the Jets defense on Thanksgiving night for an 83-yard touchdown on a screen pass? Is the guy who’s averaged 3.9 yards on 54 carries this season? Or is he the guy that has less than five touches of the ball in four of the 10 games he’s played this season? They could use Vereen, along with Danny Woodhead, as a change-of-pace back if Ridley goes south.
Brandon Bolden -- In keeping with the running back theme, this might be the most curious case. No one but Bill Belichick really knows what’s going on here. He injured his knee against the Seahawks on Oct. 14 and then was suspended four games for a PED violation. Belichick mentioned Jermaine Cunningham’s name when talking about a return to the roster next week, but when Bolden came off the list two weeks ago, it was almost persona non grata. That’s strange for a rookie free agent out of Ole Miss who burst onto the scene in Buffalo for 137 yards on 16 carries. In the two games since coming off suspension, Bolden has two carries for 11 yards, both in the Houston game. He didn’t touch the ball against the 49ers. I would expect the Pats to get him some work here in the final two weeks if they need him in the playoffs.
Chandler Jones -- The defensive end that started off as the leading candidate for AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year has cooled off dramatically. He has just four tackles in his last two games back from an ankle injury sustained in the win over the Colts on Nov. 18. He is stuck on six sacks, with his last coming in London on Oct. 28 against the Rams. Jermaine Cunningham replaced him during his injury and he might see his snaps diminish even more when Cunningham comes back on Dec. 30. This is a big game for Jones to prove to the Patriots his motor still is firing on all cylinders.
Aaron Hernandez -- Hernandez was busy Sunday night, catching 10 passes on 19 targets. He seems to be getting back into a groove, with totals of eight, eight and 10 catches in his last three weeks, all without the injured Rob Gronkowski available. If Gronk does return, can Hernandez, sidelined twice this season with a sprained right ankle, get deeper in his routes and provide another deeper threat for Brady? Hernandez also had three drops and a bobble Sunday that led to Brady’s second interception of the night in the third quarter.
Brandon Lloyd -- Without question, he is the one receiver who has picked up his game the most in the last two weeks. After one catch on only one target in the win over Miami on Dec. 2, Lloyd had seven catches on nine targets against the Texans and 10 grabs on 16 targets against San Francisco. He was one of the biggest reasons Brady was able to get the Patriots back in the game. That alone is a positive sign. Brady surely will look to add to that momentum in the final two games.
Justin Francis -- The rookie free agent defensive lineman out of Rutgers has looked more and more comfortable using his speed, and Bill Belichick has rewarded him with many more snaps in big situations, always a good sign for a player as the team heads into the playoffs. He had four tackles Sunday night. He was in for 22 of 68 snaps. “He’s definitely improved, absolutely,” Belichick said. “I think he’s definitely improved. Last year, he played three-technique at Rutgers, so although he’s played some inside, that’s not really his main thing this year. Our defense is a lot different than what they did there schematically. He’s a competitive player, he works hard. He’s got some good ability and like any young player he’s learning through sometimes trial and error. Sometimes experience, sometimes the hard way. But he works hard to get better and I have a lot of respect for that. There aren’t many people that work harder than he does. He competes every day in practice, both in the classroom and out on the field to learn and improve, and he’s definitely improved a lot, no question.”
Devin McCourty -- He has become the ball hawk at safety many figured he would be when the Patriots moved him off the island at corner. He has interceptions in the end zone in each of the last two games, a big weapon to have as you’re looking for a big-play playmaker in the postseason.
Aqib Talib -- Still hard to read just how comfortable Talib is in the Patriots system. He has made some plays, including the one late in the first half on Andre Johnson of the Texans, when he dove and broke up the pass. He also injured his hip. Assuming the hip isn’t bothering him too much, watch him closely in the final two games to see how much he is left on his own and how much -- if any -- help he gets over the top from safeties.
Rob Gronkowski (if he plays) -- No, I didn’t forget how to count. I put Gronkowski in here as an 11th man since there is serious question -- even if healthy -- whether the Pats would risk losing their most valuable receiver who is just coming off a broken left forearm. But if he does see the field, clearly you need to watch how much -- if any -- extra protection he is giving that forearm. Since Gronk is not only a beast of a receiver but arguably the best run-blocker on the team, watch how effective he is in getting his hands up into the pads of a defender and how long he can hold on before releasing. We assume he’ll be able to catch and run just like before, but it’s this intangible that is really important to the Patriots, especially in their red zone and goal-line jumbo packages.
Which brings us to the obvious question -- are the Patriots thinking about all the different playoff permutations?
Of course they are.
But, as Belichick pointed out this week, first things first, get through the two games like they get through the preseason and then prepare for whoever they might play in the playoffs.
“There’s so much stuff out there, I have no idea,” Belichick said when I posed the question this week. “I’m not smart enough to understand the 80 different things that can happen. I don’t really care. There’s nothing we can do about any of them. I think what we need to worry about is the New England Patriots. You guys can take care of all that stuff. We have plenty of things we need to do besides worry about everybody else.”
We head to the Trags Bag to ask you how the Patriots should approach the final two games of the season. Should the Patriots go all out in the final two games, and why?
@SkinlessJSn Yes. Momentum.
@docvarmint Not even a valid question IMO. BB is going to play the healthy players and play to win the final 2 games. It's his MO.
@lgreenwood15 Go all out!!!! Huge game 12/30!! I’ll b there!!! Lots of Gronk!!!!
@TruPatriot4Ever Yes, momentum is key to success, just look what the Giants have done.
@CraigMacCormack Yes. An "easier" opponent guarantees nothing.
@Lizzy_Nielson Can we all take a moment and remind ourselves this is the same Patriots team that lost to the Cardinals
@ehannan73 Houston could lose to MIN if Peterson runs wild and Indy at Indy in Week 17 and Pats would have #1 seed [if Denver loses once].