The Patriots have had eight months to think about what could have been. All offseason the Patriots players had to live with the bad taste in their mouth after their 27-13 playoff loss in Denver. New England has waited for payback ever since the schedules were announced and Sunday night in front of a national television audience, they'll get their chance at revenge.
No team likes to lose their final game of the season. It means they didn't accomplish their goal of winning the Super Bowl. While the Patriots can't win a Super Bowl title every year, the way last season ended was especially hard to swallow. Not because they lost, but because of how they lost.
In a game that saw New England outgain Denver 420-286 in total yards, costly turnovers and untimely penalties did the Patriots in and prevented them from reaching their fourth AFC Championship game in five years.
The Patriots trailed the Broncos 17-6 late in the third quarter but they still had a glimmer of hope. New England drove to the Broncos 5-yard line when the bottom fell out from under them. On third-and-goal, Tom Brady was blitzed as he tried to hit Troy Brown in the corner of the end zone. Champ Bailey picked off the Brady pass and returned it 100 yards before being knocked out of bounds just before the goal line. Mike Anderson's touchdown run on the next play sealed a Broncos victory and handed Brady his first postseason loss ever.
Following the game, Bailey wasn't shy about letting everyone know how important his interception was in securing a Broncos victory.
"They were setting picks on us early in the game," Bailey said. "They tried it again but Darrent Williams and I switched and I cut in front and picked the pass off. It was a great play by me. I did what I get paid to do; change the outcome of a game."
Brady threw for 341 yards against Denver that night but his two interceptions, particularly the costly one to Bailey, has been on his mind all offseason.
"It was tough," Brady said. "That's going to sit with me for a long time. I continue to be reminded of it. It's on NFL Network and every time I watch it's Champ running down the sideline. It was a tough way to end the year. I think we were playing at a much higher level at that point than we were earlier in the season. We were a very confident team. We just laid an egg out there and I was a huge part of that."
It's evident by Brady's comments that his first playoff loss was arguably the worst defeat he's ever been a part of. While that clearly wasn't one of Brady's best performances, a number of dependable veterans made uncharacteristically bad mistakes in that game. There was Brady's two interceptions, Kevin Faulk's fumble before the half and a muffed punt by the usually sure-handed Troy Brown in the fourth quarter. Despite their sloppy play, defensive leader Richard Seymour didn't offer any excuses after the game.
"It was disappointing but you can't say we did it to ourselves," Seymour said. "Mistakes are part of the game and we made more than Denver. It's uncharacteristic but when things like that happen, it comes out like this. As a competitive player and as a man, you have to accept it."
This week, Seymour said he and his teammates don't need any extra motivation with the Broncos coming to town.
"We'll definitely be ready for this game," Seymour said. "It's a big game against the team that knocked us out last year. We don't need any pick-me-ups for this one. It's going to be fun. This is what you play for as a competitor."
The Patriots appear to be getting the Broncos at that right time. While the Denver defense has played well early in the year -- not giving up a touchdown to this point -- the offense has struggled badly. The Broncos have scored 19 points in two games and were lucky to squeak by the Chiefs at home last week in overtime, 9-6. If Denver doesn't play better than they have this Sunday night, they could be in trouble against a Patriots team that's sure to be fired up for this matchup.
If you listen to the remarks made by the greatest quarterback to ever play for New England, it's hard to believe this game doesn't mean a little extra to him and the other players in the Patriots locker room.
"I re-watched the press conference before the Denver game," Brady said. "The last thing I said, to the last question -- it was about Champ Bailey -- was, 'Every time I throw over there I'm really going to make sure I'm careful when I throw the ball in his direction.' Then I walked off. Can you believe that? Of all the things to say."
--"I think that's the way it's going to be early in the season and trying to understand the different components we have on the team. There are a lot of players fitting into new roles and it's just going to be a lot of tough, hard-nosed games until we can play more consistently." -- Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on the inconsistency of the passing game early in the year.
--"We showed it to the team on film today. They were pretty excited about it. It was a good run. I don't know how many people saw it, the defensive guys were back there trying to get ready to go back on to the field for the two-minute drive if the Jets got the ball back. He hit Rhodes pretty hard." -- Bill Belichick commenting on Corey Dillon's fourth quarter run where he ran over Jets safety Kerry Rhodes.
--LB Tedy Bruschi made his return to the Patriots' lineup against the Jets, despite wearing a cast to protect his broken right wrist. The cast ended up being nothing more than a little uncomfortable for the Patriots emotional leader, as Bruschi finished the game with six tackles, two passes defensed and a game-clinching interception with only seconds left.
Following the game, fellow linebacker Mike Vrabel stood at his locker shaking his head. "Only Tedy could come back with a cast on his stinking arm and get an interception," Vrabel said laughing.
--Despite not playing in the same division, the Patriots and Broncos will meet for the 12th time in 12 years on Sunday night.
--Denver is just one of three opponents to have a winning record at Gillette Stadium. The others are Green Bay and San Diego.
--RB Laurence Maroney was one of five players nominated as a finalist for the Diet Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week award after his 65-yard, one touchdown performance against the Jets. He was up against Colts running back Joseph Addai, Saints wide receiver Marques Colston, 49ers outside linebacker Manny Lawson and Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams.
--LB Mike Vrabel was asked on Wednesday if the Patriots are looking to settle a score with the Broncos this week after last year's difficult playoff loss.
"No, it's the third game," Vrabel responded. "It's a big game but it's still early. We're starting to play better and obviously they're playing better. There are things that we need to work on and they're trying to do the same thing. To try and settle a score in the third week of the season is crazy."