Matt Cassel: Bill Belichick's strategic approach to Week 17 rest conundrum


In Week 17 of my rookie year for the New England Patriots, we could not improve our standing at all.

We were locked into the No. 4 slot no matter what.

So I knew I’d probably get an opportunity to play, because the game had no meaning whatsoever, and you want to rest Tom Brady and not risk him getting banged up. 

But it wasn’t until the second quarter when Bill Belichick literally came up after Brady finished a series and said, “All right, Cassel, you’re going in next series.”

And that was it. Just, "All right, here we go."

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A similar situation happened in 2007. We were going for our undefeated season and obviously had locked up the No. 1 seed entering Week 17 against the New York Giants.

There was a clear understanding that I needed to be ready to play, and I even got a few more reps during that week of practice than I normally would, thinking I would probably get into the game pretty early.

But once that game started and it was back-and-forth, none of those guys were coming out of the game. They wanted to play.

The Patriots are going to approach this matchup with the Miami Dolphins like any other game. They don't really get into scenarios, to be honest.

Belichick will say, “Everybody needs to be ready to play 60 minutes.”

That approach forces players to treat this week like any other game. You have to be mentally ready to play. If you don't? You’re doing a disservice to yourself and your team.

And that's the message to everybody across the board: The backups need to be ready to go and the starters need to be ready to go, and we don’t know what the circumstances are going to be.

Even when I played three quarters in that rookie-year game, it’s not like they told me the night before, “Hey Cassel, you’re going in in the second quarter.”

The message was, “You need to be ready to go. Tom, you’re starting. You need to be ready to go as well. We don’t know how long you’re going to go, but everybody in this room needs to be ready to play."

That approach forces players to treat this week like any other game. You have to be mentally ready to play. If you don't? One, you’re putting yourself at greater injury risk, and two, you’re doing a disservice to yourself and your team.

So the mentality has always been that you're going to be prepared to play for 60 minutes.

If the circumstances allow it and they have a handle on Sunday's game entering the third or fourth quarter, I can see the Patriots getting rest for guys like Julian Edelman.

We've all seen him take his bumps and bruises, and you could tell in that Bengals game his injuries were taking a toll on him.

Belichick and the coaches and Jim Whelan and the training staff will monitor guys like Edelman throughout the week. They'll assess the risk/reward of him playing or sitting out, in case he really needs that extra week to get ready for the divisional round.

But if there’s any chance whatsoever that another team could possibly take the Patriots' No. 2 spot due to a loss, they will absolutely treat this like a playoff game.

Everybody will be up, everybody will be ready to go, and I can see all the starters playing until they get a firm handle on the game in the third or fourth quarter.

Editor's note: Matt Cassel had a 14-year NFL career that included four seasons with the New England Patriots (2005-2008). He's joining the NBC Sports Boston team for this season. You can find him on game days as part of our Pregame Live and Postgame Live coverage, as well as every week on Tom E. Curran’s Patriots Talk podcast and

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