In fitting fashion, New England closed out the regular season exactly 180 degrees from where it started, with a 31-0 drubbing of the Buffalo Bills and on top of the NFL with the league's best record (14-2) and the No. 1 seed throughout the AFC Playoffs.
With 17 seconds left in the game and down 31-0, the Bills found themselves on the Patriots 1-yard line. It was eerie. That is exactly where the Patriots found themselves when they were humiliated in Buffalo way back in September. And just like New England, Buffalo failed to get in when Larry Izzo picked off the Travis Brown pass to end the game.
"Irony," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "Isn't that the same score it was up there? Wasn't it a goal line stand and we couldn't get in? Talk about payback. It was very similar. I was sort of shaking my head a little bit how similar it was. It's a little strange, but maybe that's just Foxboro magic working itself again."
The game was dominated by New England from start to finish. The Bills defense, regarded one of the best in the NFL, had no answer to the Patriots offense and Brady's pass-as-run game.
The Bills offense, regarded as one of the worst in football, played up to its billing as New England's defense made Drew Bledsoe's day absolutely miserable.
"I think for us whenever somebody kicks your butt, if you are competitive, if you are a fighter, you are going to come back," safety Rodney Harrison said. "And regardless if you come out and say it or not, you want revenge. Basically that's what happened with us. They are a tough team. Despite their record, they have a great defense, fourth in the league, I think and the offense is full of talented guys. But the guys on our squad just made a lot of plays."
New England wasted no time, going immediately into a no-huddle offense with an empty backfield throughout its first drive of the game. In fact, it wasn't until the Patriots were first and goal from the 1-yard line that a running back (Antowain Smith) even came on the field. From there, Tom Brady hit Daniel Graham for the touchdown.
The 9-play drive went 62 yards in a little over four minutes. Brady was sharp, hitting on 6 of 7 pass attempts and running twice for a total of 22 yards.
Signs of a mismatch came when Mike Vrabel intercepted a Bruschi-pressured Bledsoe on the Bills first possession. Vrabel's return set up the offense on the Buffalo 34. Eight plays later, Brady hit Bethel Johnson from 9 yards out for the score and with 5:23 still left to play in the first quarter, the Patriots had opened up a 14-0 lead.
"I think that was a great call by Romeo [Crennel, defensive coordinator]," Bruschi said. "It was a blitz where we had every gap covered and they couldn't block everybody. So I came free. I was able to get a hand on Drew, on his throwing hand, and it sort of affected the throw and Vrabel has great hands. He's going to catch that ball every time."
The Bills defense did give Bledsoe and his offense a chance to make some noise when Jeff Posey knocked the ball from Brady's hand as the quarterback looked to pass. The Bills came up with the ball on the Patriots 29-yard line. After a Henry run for 3 and two stops by the Patriots pass defense, Buffalo attempted a field goal but was called for a delay of game. The penalty knocked them back 5 yards and this time Buffalo went for the first down but Bledsoe's throw fell incomplete.
Throughout the first half, New England chose air delivery for the most part with Brady throwing 18 times, hitting on 15 for 90 yards and 2 touchdowns.
As the second quarter opened, New England was driving for its third score of the day. After two incompletes from 19 yards out, Brady hit Troy Brown for the score as he beat Kevin Thomas on a route to the left top corner of the end zone.
The Bills had another chance to put points on the board midway through the second quarter. A third down sack of Bledsoe by Rodney Harrison set up a 40-yard attempt by Rian Lindell but the Bills kicker hooked the attempt to the left and Buffalo came up empty.
New England made them pay on its next possession, going 70 yards in 9 plays for its fourth touchdown. Givens made a nifty shoulder dip fake as he caught a Brady pass around the 4-yard line and found his way into the end zone. The pass went for 10 yards and made Givens the fourth Patriot to catch a touchdown with the game still in the first half.
"I think Tom did a great job of spreading the ball around and keeping the defense on their heels, not knowing which way he was going to throw," Givens said. "And I think [offensive coordinator] Charlie Weis also did a good job starting us off in the no-huddle offense which definitely wore down Buffalo's defense. Tom did a great job spreading the ball around as well as guys getting open."
The second half opened with a 75-yard kickoff return by Antonio Brown to the Patriots 18-yard line. It was to no avail for the struggling Bills as the futile set of downs was capped by a Tully Banta-Cain sack of Bledsoe on third down. On fourth, Bledsoe threw incomplete.
That gave the Patriots the ball for the first time in the third quarter and it looked like the offense would pick up where it left off. Brady started things with a nice 30-yard pass to Brown down the middle seam. Smith then took over, running for 9, 6 and 9 yards. After a 15-yard Givens catch, New England had to settle for a 24-yard Vinatieri field goal attempt but amazingly, the kick caromed off the left upright for a miss.
Vinatieri was good on his second attempt of the game, a 24-yarder in the fourth quarter. The scoring drive was set up by a Tedy Bruschi sack, forced fumble and recovery. With 12:50 left in the game, New England had matched the score they lost by in Week 1 to the Bills – 31-0.
With that, Buffalo pulled Bledsoe from the game, replacing him with Travis Brown. Bledsoe finished the game with 12 of 29 passing for 83 yards, an interception and 3 sacks.
Brown managed to drive his team down to the Patriots 22 but a Travis Henry fumble forced by Tyrone Poole and recovered by Matt Chatham put an end to yet another chance for Buffalo.
Brady left the game with seven minutes remaining to play and was replaced by Damon Huard. Brady's numbers: 204 yards on 21 of 31 passing and 4 touchdowns.
Antowain Smith finished with 74 yards on the ground on 15 carries. David Givens led the Patriots receivers with 7 catches for 80 yards and a touchdown.
New England did not escape the game unscathed. Both Damien Woody (leg) and Mike Vrabel (arm) left the game with injuries and did not return, although neither injury appeared overly serious. Woody said after the game that he, "just got rolled up on a little bit. No big deal. I am going to be ready to go."
New England will watch the first week of playoff proceedings from home due to its No. 1 seeding and bye. They will play the lowest seeded team coming out of Wildcard Weekend.
"We have a couple of days off after this so I'll have a smile on my face for a little bit, but when we come back I think the veterans are going to stress in here, 'OK, it's time,'" Bruschi said. "What else can you achieve in the regular season? You can't achieve anything more besides getting the home-field advantage and we've got that so now we have to do something with it.
"Right now it's just about enjoying the bye and waiting to see who we'll play."
"We are pretty much playing for a three-game season right now," tight end Christian Fauria said. "All the games are going to be at home. As long as we play well then you can write your own ending. It's our choice. It depends on how we want to act. The way things have gone in the past I am pretty confident that we are going to play well."