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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Last season's NFL finale hangs over the Patriots

New England has a chance for a record fourth 14-win season, but will Coach Bill Belichick risk another injury to a star player?

January 01, 2011|Sam Farmer

They already have a first-round bye, but the New England Patriots could reach for more.

The question: Is it worth it?

Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has a chance for an NFL-record fourth 14-win season; his teams have reached the Super Bowl in all of the seasons in which they had 14 victories. But Belichick also has to be thinking about lifting his foot from the accelerator in a home game against Miami on Sunday and coasting into the playoffs.

After all, it was just last season when the Patriots played hard all the way through — even though they had nothing to gain by winning their finale — and wound up losing Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker to a serious knee injury in Week 17.

The Patriots were AFC East champions last season but couldn't gain a first-round bye. Still, they started stars Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Welker (instantly regretting that when Welker was taken off the field on a stretcher) and wound up losing.

The next week, without Welker (the league's leading receiver), the Patriots were eliminated at home by Baltimore, 33-14.

So what about Sunday? How hard will the Patriots try to extend their winning streak to eight games? Can they stomach the thought of losing at home, something they haven't done in 27 regular-season games with Brady as the starter?

Belichick was predictably cryptic during the week when asked if he plans to rest his starters.

"There's a lot of things that would go into that conversation, a lot of things we'll take into consideration," the coach said. "There's some players individually whose situations are a little different than other guys. … We'll do what's best for the football team, both individually and collectively."

Belichick hasn't seemed wedded to breaking NFL records in the past, particularly if it's at the expense of winning games that actually mean something. Still, he could be the first with four 14-win seasons. A look at how his three have ended:

SEASON / W-L / SUPER BOWL RESULT

2003/ 14-2 / Defeated Carolina, 32-29

2004/ 14-2 / Defeated Philadelphia, 24-21

2007/ 16-0 / Lost to N.Y. Giants, 17-14

Source: NFL

Many happy returns

You can bet the Green Bay Packers are going to try to avoid the 23 skidoo Sunday.

In other words, they are going to try to keep the ball out of the hands of Chicago's No. 23, Pro Bowl returner Devin Hester, a player Packers Coach Mike McCarthy says is the Bears' best.

"He's having an incredible season," McCarthy told reporters last week. "He's impacted pretty much every game they've won."

Hester leads the NFL with a punt-return average of 17.1 yards on 31 returns, with three punts run back for touchdowns.

The NFL record for highest average in a season is 16.1 yards by Baltimore's Jermaine Lewis. So one more good game by Hester and he can put his name atop that list. Players with the highest punt-return average in a season in NFL history (minimum 30 returns):

PLAYER, TEAM / YEAR/ NO/ AVG

Jermaine Lewis, Ravens / 2000 / 36 / 16.1

Devin Hester, Bears / 2007 / 42 / 15.5

Speedy Duncan, Chargers / 1965 / 30 / 15.5

Billy Johnson, Oilers / 1977 / 35 / 15.4

Billy Johnson, Oilers / 1975 / 40 / 15.3

Source: NFL

The whole nine years

LaDainian Tomlinson leads the New York Jets with 914 yards rushing, meaning he needs 86 against Buffalo on Sunday for another 1,000-yard season, which would be his ninth. That would put him alone in fourth place for the number of such seasons in a career, behind Emmitt Smith (11 seasons), Walter Payton (10), Barry Sanders (10) and Curtis Martin (10).

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

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