Almost immediately on Sunday during the New England Patriots' 20-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 17, it was evident that head coach Bill Belichick had other things on his mind besides winning the game.
On 3rd-and-8, pitch to Brandon Bolden; 3rd-and-7, inside handoff to Steven Jackson; 3rd-and-15, inside handoff to Steven Jackson. In the first half, wide receiver Brandon LaFell was the only non-running back on the Patriots roster to touch the ball besides quarterback Tom Brady. The Patriots finished with a run-pass ratio of 27-to-21.
Brady's five first-half pass attempts were a career-low for the 16-year veteran quarterback.
Of course, it would have been nice to lock up the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Clearly, though, Belichick was more interested in entering the playoffs healthy than he was with having the road to the Super Bowl run through Foxborough—despite whatever he may have said about the offensive game plan being the "same as it always is: move the ball and score points," and despite Brady saying that the Patriots "absolutely" gave 100 percent to win the game.
If the Patriots put everything they had into this game, they might be in trouble in the playoffs.
Sunday's conservative approach was indicative that the Dolphins were gearing up to stop the pass; in those situations, the Patriots are almost always going to try to take advantage of matchups in the running game. It was also indicative of the Patriots' woes in pass protection, with Brady being pummeled when he dropped back to throw.
Tom E. Curran @tomecurran
Patriots protecting Brady with game plan. On third-and-8 shotgun run to Bolden. Hasn't dropped back yet. Only pass a shovel pass.2016-1-3 18:24:22
Those pass-protection woes are magnified when receivers can't get open, and that's bound to happen when a team loses as many of its key receivers as the Patriots have lost this season. That's especially true when those receivers are of the Julian Edelman/Danny Amendola ilk, the kind of receivers who excel at getting open on short routes and allow Brady an outlet when he's under pressure.
Matt Chatham @chatham58
There's is no time to do dropback passing right now for the #Patriots. On 3rd & 14, routes weren't yet run when wave of rushers got there.2016-1-3 20:44:32
Can't run it against favorable looks. Can't beat pressure. Can't get open. Yep, that sounds a lot like the Patriots offense we saw on Sunday.
The Patriots should just count their lucky stars that Brady wasn't injured badly—and they nearly weren't so lucky, as Brady injured his right ankle in the first half after Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh rolled into Brady's legs.
But there are still lots of questions for the Patriots offense headed into the playoffs—not the least of which is whether the return of Edelman and getting Amendola back to 100 percent can turn their shoddy offense into the juggernaut we saw earlier in the season. There's also the question of whether the running game can snap back into form, or whether the Patriots will just have to endure their playoff journey without the running game.
The Patriots offense has faced more questions than this in the past, but the answer has always been Brady. It seems like the Patriots' playoff hopes will hinge on Tom being terrific once again.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained via team news release.