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What To Watch For: How Much Will Patriots Starters Play vs. Bills?

BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots have the top seed in the AFC all locked up, making Sunday's regular season finale a bit meaningless in the eyes of many.

Just don't say that to Bill Belichick or his players though. Sure, there is nothing to be gained in the standings from Sunday's game, but the Patriots aren't ready to close the book on the regular season just yet. You would have had a better chance getting Belichick to don that pink bunny suit from A Christmas Story than get any playoff chatter out of him or his players over the last few days.

Tom Brady wasn't pleased with his offensive showing against the New York Jets last week, and wants to see a full 60 minute effort from his team this weekend. Plenty of players could use an extra week of rest, with Rob Gronkowski chief among them, but that thought hasn't entered their minds (or at least left their mouths when chatting with the media) this week.

So what can we expect to see on Sunday? Here is what to watch for when the Patriots close out the regular season:

Just Like A Preseason Game?
Should the starters play, and if they do, how much should they play? That is the great debate that has been discussed throughout the week leading up to this game.

Bill Belichick hasn't tipped his hand, saying they'll approach this game like they do every game and do what's best for the New England Patriots. So what is best for the Patriots in a relatively meaningless game against a very good defense?

Patriots Injury Report: Gray, Dennard Out; 15 Questionable

Many say having Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Darrelle Revis -- three of the main keys to New England's success this season -- on the bench would be best on Sunday. It also wouldn't hurt if players like Julian Edelman (thigh/concussion) and Dan Connolly (knee) got another week of rest ahead of the postseason bye week.

But Brady hasn't been pleased with his offense over the last few weeks, and will likely see the field for at least some portion of this one. And if Brady is out there, Gronk should probably be out there too (though not for too long).

The likeliest approach for the Patriots is treating this game like a preseason game. Let the starters see some action, get some extra work in, but after a few drives -- certainly no longer than the first half -- make way for the backups.

You never know what you'll get from Belichick, but it's pretty clear what should be his main focus in Week 17.

Resting players is one way to keep them healthy, which should be priority No. 1 for the Patriots on Sunday. Granted, injuries can happen on any play in any week, but it hurts that much more when a player goes down in a meaningless regular season game.

Remember when Wes Welker tore his ACL and MCL in Week 17 of the 2009 season, by simply planting his foot on the turf in Houston? The last thing the Pats need is to lose a key player like that with Super Bowl hopes in the back (the way back) of their minds.

Luckily, Bernard Pollard is not wearing a Buffalo uniform.

Jimmy Time?
If Tom Brady finds his way to the bench at some point on Sunday, that means more Garoppolo time for the Patriots.

The rookie QB has only thrown 10 passes this season, tabbed with some mop-up duty on five separate occasions. In that small sample, he's been pretty good too: 9-for-10 for 92 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions.

Belichick spoke about Garoppolo's improvement throughout the season on Friday.

"I think Jimmy has worked hard," Belichick said. "He keeps getting better. He's worked on a lot of things that we've identified for him to do. He's gotten better and certainly has a much better understanding of the league."

Let Brady do his thing and feel good about the offense heading into the postseason (or get him out of there as soon as the Buffalo pass rush throws him to the ground), and then let the rookie cap off his first season in the NFL with something he can build on.

Vince's Bonus
While we're campaigning for Belichick to rest many of his stars, Vince Wilfork probably doesn't want to see the bench at all on Sunday.

At points over the summer it didn't look like Wilfork would be back with the Patriots due to a contract issue. But the 33-year-old restructured (and extended) his deal with New England, with a few incentives worked into the contract.

So far this season, Wilfork has played 74 percent of New England's defensive snaps (according to Pro Football Focus). He's due to make another $1.25 million if he plays in 70 percent of the snaps this season, so he's not going to be very open to missing an entire game come Sunday.

If Wilfork hits that 70 percent mark and the team finishes with a top 10 scoring defense in the NFL (they're currently ranked 11th at 19.7 points per game), No. 75 picks up another cool half a million bucks.

So if you see Wilfork, whose base salary was $1.3 million this season, out there with a bunch of second-teamers along the defensive line, you'll know why.

Tune in to Sunday's Patriots-Bills game on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV — the flagship stations of the New England Patriots! Pregame coverage begins at 10am on the Sports Hub, and at 11:30am on WBZ-TV with Patriots GameDay. Stay tuned after the game on 98.5 for three hours of postgame coverage, and catch Bill Belichick and Tom Brady's press conferences live over on myTV38 on Patriots 5th Quarter.


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