(Dec. 23, 2003) -- The Patriots are the AFC East champions. They have clinched a first-round playoff bye and own the NFL's best record. They have enjoyed the greatest regular season in team history with a franchise-best 13 wins and record 11 in a row. So why, then, do they have something to prove to a 6-9 Bills team that will miss the playoffs for the third straight year?
The answer lies in a 31-0 season-opening blowout loss in Buffalo.
To truly put closure on this unimaginable season, New England has to answer its Week 1 demon, those Bills, who embarrassed it back on Sept. 7.
So it is only fitting that New England gets its chance at redemption in the season finale. It gets to atone for the biggest blemish on a near spotless slate. And most importantly, it gets the opportunity to clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs against a team that knocked it to the ground and then kicked it when it was down.
Now the Patriots are standing tall and appear more equipped for the challenge the Bills offer.
"It's very ironic," Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison said, "but it's the perfect setting. We're at home for the last game and it's a climactic game. There will be a lot of physical play and emotion."
Emotion was so obviously missing on the Patriots sideline in Week 1. Still in shock from Bill Belichick's controversial decision to release veteran safety and team captain Lawyer Milloy, who quickly signed with the Bills in time for the opener, the Patriots played an uninspired game while the Bills played with the vengeful passion of a spurned lover. Buffalo played with a purpose, like a team making a statement behind a revamped defense in place to lead it to late-season glory.
New England limped home wondering how it could overcome the loss of Milloy and the humiliating defeat that ensued.
"We have a lot of prideful guys on this team and it was embarrassing that first week to go out there and slap whatever we slapped out on the field," said cornerback Ty Law, who is a close friend of Milloy and took the release harder than any Patriot. "It was just embarrassing. So I think each individual contributed, looked within and decided we had to do something about it. I think we all took it personally."
The Patriots, behind veteran leaders like Harrison and Pro Bowlers Richard Seymour and Law, won 13 of their next 14 while overcoming a slew of injuries that forced 42 different players into the starting lineup.
Instead of running from adversity, the Patriots learned how to cope with it. They have won 11 straight games by a slim 7.7-point margin that included a pair of overtime wins and four victories in which they failed to score 20 points. They did it behind a defense that took Week 1 to heart.
"We trust each other more now," Harrison said in reference to chemistry that didn't exist back on Sept. 7. "We're a lot more together, a lot more focused and we're just out there having fun. We believe in one another and regardless of the situation, we believe we can win."
The Buffalo debacle may have helped speed that team-building process.
"It was a very emotional week with all the things that transpired," guard Damien Woody admitted while reflecting on the early season events. "There were ties being severed. It all played a factor and it was a low point, but we did a good job rebounding and now we're in good position.
"The good thing was that it happened at the beginning of the season and guys were like, 'Hey, we have a lot of football left and we put in too much work this offseason to let anything destroy our season this early. Let's just rally the troops and go to work.'"
That's all they really did. They just grinded out win after win in every imaginable fashion while the team that grounded them at the start was heading in the opposite direction. So the season has come full circle for both teams, and the Patriots feel as though it's time to even the score.
"We've been hearing the whole situation about the Buffalo Bills all season," Harrison said. "Even when we won seven or eight in a row, people were still talking about how that game affected us and how the whole Lawyer Milloy deal went down. We're always constantly reminded of it. It's been sticking with us, but now we have the opportunity to take it head on."
"When you get beat, 31-0, of course you're embarrassed," former Bills running back Antowain Smith said. "You just want to go out the next time you play them and play well. They'll see a different team. We know Lawyer and Drew (Bledsoe) are coming back and there will be a media frenzy, but we just have to stay grounded."
"We're not going to get blown out 31-0," Harrison emphasized. "I can't guarantee anything, but we're going to play hard and be ready."
Belichick, whose release of Milloy was the catalyst for all this week's media hype, downplayed the week's rematch in his usual understated fashion.
"Hopefully," he said, "we can play a little more competitively than we did the last time we faced them and at least make it a game."