Inside Slant: Patriots Have Score to Settle

Week 1 was a long time ago -- ages ago in terms of the NFL schedule. Ask a Patriot which team he played against in Week 6 and he might need to think for a minute.

Ask about Week 1 and the answer is instantaneous. So it is only fitting that the Patriots end the regular season facing the same team with which they kicked it off and with the one that kicked them all around them field -- the Buffalo Bills.

The Patriots moved on from that devastating 31-0 season opening loss that came just days after Bill Belichick created a distraction when he released safety and team captain Lawyer Milloy only to see him sign with Buffalo before the opener, but they never forgot. They moved on and progressed, perhaps using that embarrassment as motivation as they somehow managed to rattle off 13 wins over the next 14 games, including a franchise record 11 straight. Now they hope to turn the tables when the teams meet in the season finale Saturday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

"Having them the last game of the year is pretty meaningful for us," quarterback Tom Brady said. "We have to go out and play well. It is a very good defense that we are playing and offensively, they have shown that they can score some points."

The Bills certainly scored in the first meeting and their defense was dominant, intercepting Brady four times in a game that wasn't as close as the score.

"It was obviously not a very good show by me and not a very good show by our offense," Brady added. "It was just bad all the way around. It was a tough way to start the year, getting beat 31-0 after a successful preseason. We felt it was going to be a good year and then that first week we thought maybe we weren't as good as we thought we were. We learned from that game."

That became obvious over the ensuing 14 games when the Patriots clearly handled any adversity and turned it away. But these two teams are at the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum in a role reversal from Week 1. The Bills, after a 2-0 start, lost nine of their next 14 and will head home following Saturday's matinee, which is a far cry from where they were after that season opening party at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Patriots will play on in the AFC playoffs.

"You will see a different team," safety Rodney Harrison said. "I can't guarantee anything, but we're going to play hard, we're going to come ready and it's going to be a physical game. We're not going to get blown out 31-0."

The Patriots, despite the motivation provided by the rematch, can't get lost in the revenge factor because the true importance of the game lies in clinching the AFC's top seed and the home field advantage that carries in the playoffs. Mention that, though, and wait for the canned answer the Patriots have rehearsed all season.

"I don't see any need for us to get caught up in what happened in the past or what is going to happen in the future," tight end Christian Fauria said. "Our main theme this whole year has been to take it one game at a time. We really take that to heart. That was one of the keys to staying focused throughout the year."

That mentality makes this week not about clinching anything, but about the Buffalo Bills, a team that, despite its struggles, owns the league's second ranked defense. An offense that has had trouble holding on to the football has been the biggest culprit in the team's disappointing season.

"There was a stretch where we didn't protect the ball very well," Bills head coach Gregg Williams said. "The times we've protected it, we played pretty good."

Quarterback Drew Bledsoe has thrown only 11 interceptions, but also lost nine fumbles and has had trouble staying upright behind an offensive line that has allowed 47 sacks. It has been one of the worst seasons of his 11-year career and he's on pace to throw for the second fewest yards (2,962) in his career dating back to his rookie season in 1993 (2,494) just a year after he threw for 4,359.

"At times, he's pressed too hard," Williams said of Bledsoe. "He's tried to, maybe at times, do too much. But I think that all good players, all top players, think, 'I'm going to put the team on my back and I'm going to overcome everything and win it for my team.'"

The Patriots will be looking to exploit the Bills offensive problems with a ball-hawking defense that has intercepted a league-high (tied) 27 passes, led by cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, who each have six picks. But the way to force Bledsoe into mistakes is to pressure him, which hasn't been hard to do against Buffalo's front line.

Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour and Willie McGinest have combined for 23 sacks with a nice inside-outside combination rush and that trio is likely to be a featured part of this week's game plan. Buffalo was well prepared for New England's rush schemes in the season opener just as they seemed well prepared for everything New England did. The Patriots were humiliated by that performance.

"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," Law said. "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."

So the season finale offers the chance for closure. The Patriots are moving on with a playoff bye regardless of the outcome, but it remains an important game.

"It's very ironic," Harrison said. "But it's the perfect setting. We're home for the last game of the season and it's a very climactic game. There will be a lot of emotion."

There was in the first meeting as well, but it all flowed from the Bills sideline as they crushed an uninspired Patriots team reeling from Milloy's sudden release. But they overcame that and now they will try to overcome the Week 1 albatross.

88th meeting. The Patriots lead the all-time series 46-40-1 and are 24-19 vs. the Bills at home. Two of the last three meetings have been decided by 31 points with each team taking one blowout win. But nine of the last 11 have been decided by 10 points or less, six of those by four points or less and four have been decided in overtime. Of the six all-time overtime meetings, four have come in the last five years.

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