Put the Injured Patriots Players in Bubble Wrap until the Playoffs

The risk of playing them too soon far outweighs the reward.

Now that an undefeated regular-season is no longer a possibility, the biggest question currently facing the Patriots is the status of their injured stars. Getting everyone healthy before the playoffs should be their top priority for the month of December, even if it comes at the expense of putting the best team on the field.

The truth is, even with a decimated roster, it’s difficult to see the Patriots losing more than an additional game the rest of the way. The contest they’re most in danger of dropping is a Sunday night affair at Houston in two weeks, but even that’s far from a slam dunk. Despite their ferocious defense, it’s hard to take the Texans seriously as postseason contenders as long as they have Brian Hoyer at quarterback.

Following Sunday’s matchup against the Broncos, a crowded injury list received two new additions in Rob Gronkowski and Dont’a Hightower. Gronkowski is unlikely to miss more than a couple of games with a bruised right knee and Hightower is reportedly week-to-week with his knee injury. Neither player should see the field until they’re 100 percent ready to go.

As the Patriots learned from 2012-2014, when they played without Gronkowski in the playoffs or with a hobbled version of him, a healthy Gronk is vital to their Super Bowl hopes. Given Gronkowski’s propensity for injury—he’s already undergone seven surgeries in his NFL career—it’s best to be overly cautious with him.

Hightower may not be a household name yet, but the fourth-year linebacker is an invaluable member to the defense. When he was in the game Sunday, the Broncos only mustered 46 yards on 16 carries. After he left, they gained 133 yards on 16 carries and scored three touchdowns. He needs to be in there if the Patriots are going to stop the run in January.

Going forward, the Patriots are unlikely to be quite as depleted as they were Sunday night. Danny Amendola is expected back this week and linebacker Jamie Collins may finally be getting over the mysterious illness that’s kept him sidelined for the last four games. Their returns should provide the Pats with enough of a boost the rest of the way, considering the combined record of their five remaining opponents is 22-33.

At 10-1, the Patriots currently hold a one-game lead over the Broncos for the best record in the AFC. Getting the No. 1 seed in the playoffs would be an advantage, but it isn’t essential. On Sunday night, the Patriots nearly beat the Broncos on the road even though they were playing without their four best offensive players besides Tom Brady by the end of the game, missing their two best defensive players, and going up against an apparent referee conspiracy. With a healthier squad, they should be able to win in Denver.

In addition to Gronkowski and Amendola, Julian Edelman should be back in time for the playoffs as well. The diagnosis on his foot injury is six-eight weeks, which takes the Patriots right up to the divisional round.

If Brady has close to his full array of weapons come January, the Pats should be surefire Super Bowl favorites. The next month is all about gearing up to the championship run, even if it means enduring a few ugly games in the interim.