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Don't expect the Patriots to rest over the final two weeks

Now that New England has clinched home-field advantage, there is as much of a chance of the Patriots resting regulars as there was for them letting up in recent blowouts.

In other words, no chance.

New England is going after Miami this week the same way it is going after the New York Giants the next week, the same way it is going after any potential playoff opponent.

New England's bye week, right smack between the regular-season finale and the AFC Divisional Playoff weekend, will serve as its mandatory week to rest regulars. Until then, the Patriots do not plan to rest anybody, at least according to their coach, Bill Belichick.

"We'll do what we always do," Belichick declared after New England beat the New York Jets on Sunday. "That's what we always do. We'll play the same way. We'll do what we always do. We'll come in, we'll prepare and we'll play the game on Sunday. That's what we do."

In recent years, other teams that have rested regulars after they clinched home-field advantage later regretted it. The 1996 Denver Broncos and 2005 Indianapolis Colts are prime examples. Each flamed out in their first playoff game -- Denver against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the Patriots do not sound as if it will even be an issue.

"We're paid professionals," Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs told reporters. "None of this (is about) taking a break. Knowing Bill Belichick, I don't see that coming."

For a while, it looked as if the Giants might be the team resting regulars in the game against New England. But with the Giants losing Sunday night, New York has to win Sunday against Buffalo to clinch a playoff spot. Win and it's in. But Buffalo has been one of the toughest places to play this season. If the Giants lose Sunday, they might find themselves in the position of having to beat the Patriots to get into the playoffs.

More troubling for the Giants is this: They seem to be encountering tough breaks on an almost weekly basis –- literally. For the third time in the past five games, New York has lost a key contributor to a fractured fibula: linebacker Mathia Kiwanuka at Detroit on Nov. 18, running back Derrick Ward at Chicago on Dec. 2, and tight end Jeremy Shockey Sunday night against Washington.

North heating up

Of the eight division battles, only one remains unsettled. Heading into Week 16 the AFC North is still not decided as the Steelers and Browns share the top spot with identical 9-5 records.

Pittsburgh holds the tiebreaker edge, so Cleveland will have to finish with a better record. But the Browns' remaining schedule is a bit more favorable.

Pittsburgh plays Thursday night on NFL Network at St. Louis, then wraps up the regular season at Baltimore. Cleveland plays at Cincinnati, then finishes up at home against San Francisco.

Yet Cleveland does not need to win the division to clinch its first playoff spot since 2002. All it needs to do is win on Sunday to clinch at least a wild-card berth.

2002 was also the last time Cleveland had a player voted to the Pro Bowl. That streak should be snapped Tuesday, when the Pro Bowl teams are announced. Browns with a legitimate shot at going to Hawaii include wide receiver Braylon Edwards, tight end Kellen Winslow, quarterback Derek Anderson, offensive tackle Joe Thomas and returner Josh Cribbs.

Wide open at wideout

Of all the positional Pro Bowl battles, none is any more intriguing than the one in the AFC at wide receiver. Take a look at these candidates, and figure out which four are the most deserving of a spot in the Pro Bowl:

»Randy Moss, New England Patriots, 87 catches for 1,343 yards and 19 touchdowns.
»Wes Welker, Patriots, 96 catches for 1,004 yards and eight touchdowns.
»Chad Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals, 85 catches for 1,265 yards and six touchdowns.
»T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Bengals, 101 catches for 1,028 yards and 11 touchdowns.
»Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts, 82 catches for 1,280 yards and nine touchdowns.
»Braylon Edwards, Browns, 69 catches for 1,170 yards and 13 touchdowns.
»Brandon Marshall, Denver Broncos, 86 catches for 1,136 yards and six touchdowns.
»Derrick Mason, Baltimore Ravens, 92 catches for 917 yards and four touchdowns.

No matter how the voting comes out, there are going to be a handful of receivers disgruntled about not making the team.

Rookie Bowlers?

True but strange: Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor has rushed for more than 10,000 yards in his NFL career but has never been voted to the Pro Bowl. Tampa Bay wide receiver Joey Galloway has more than 10,000 yards receiving in the NFL but has never been voted to the Pro Bowl. Green Bay cornerback Al Harris has been one of the top cover men in the league during his 10 NFL seasons but has never been voted to the Pro Bowl.

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