After the then-undefeated Buffalo Bills shocked the New England Patriots in Week 3, the season-ending rematch in Foxborough looked like it could be a showdown for the AFC East title.
Instead, New England has had the division wrapped up for weeks and the Bills have been out of contention even longer.
The Patriots look to secure the AFC's No. 1 seed Sunday by resuming their dominance over Buffalo, which has never won a game at Gillette Stadium.
With a record four games better than the second-place Jets, New England (12-3) has clinched its third straight East title, eighth in nine seasons and ninth in 12 years under coach Bill Belichick. The Patriots boast a league-leading seven Pro Bowl starters and eight Pro Bowlers in all - led by Tom Brady, who needs 103 passing yards to reach 5,000.
The future Hall of Famer has an outside chance to end up with the NFL single-season record in that category, depending on how much action Drew Brees sees for New Orleans. Brees has already surpassed Dan Marino's previous record of 5,084 by three yards, but with the Saints unlikely to improve their playoff position or get a bye, they could opt to rest their star QB.
Given all of that, it would seem New England has cruised through the season. Yet the truth has told a far different story.
The Patriots defense has been the NFL's worst, getting run over for 412.1 total yards per game - the most allowed by a defense since the 1981 Baltimore Colts gave up an average of 424.6. Defensive end Andre Carter had been a bright spot, making the Pro Bowl with a team-high 10 sacks, but he's out for the season with a quadriceps injury. The secondary has been so banged-up that receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater have been pressed into meaningful duty on the other side of the ball.
Last week, New England trailed also-ran Miami 17-0 at halftime before storming back, holding on to win 27-24 and clinching a first-round bye.
"It's good to clinch," said Deion Branch, who caught Brady's lone touchdown pass of the game, "but not by the way we played. It's not the way you want to do it."
Despite their weaknesses, the Patriots would own the No. 1 seed in the AFC for a second consecutive postseason with either a win Sunday or losses by Baltimore and Pittsburgh. They should be plenty motivated to turn the tables on Buffalo, which rallied from a 21-0 deficit to stun the Patriots 34-31 on Sept. 25, when
"I think everyone still has a pretty bitter taste in our mouths from the last time we lost to the Buffalo Bills," Brady said Monday on WEEI radio. "It was an incredibly difficult loss for our team. Everyone is going to be excited to go out there and see if we can do a better job."
One area where Brady and the Patriots have done a much better job recently is in protecting the football. New England had three four-turnover games - including the loss to Buffalo - in the first half of the season, but has a total of just two giveaways during its current seven-game winning streak.
Defensively, the Patriots have forced 16 turnovers in that same span for an AFC-leading plus-14 ratio.
"Tom has done a much better job of taking care of the ball and he's very, very conscious of it and it carries over to the rest of the offense," offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien said. "If we can just continue to do that, that's one of the major stats that equals wins, just taking care of the ball. The way our defense has been playing opportunistic football, that's going to help us going forward."
Buffalo (6-9) appeared to be steaming toward ending its 11-year playoff drought as it was 3-0 after beating the Patriots, but proceeded to drop nine of its next 11 including a seven-game skid.
Injuries certainly played a part. Sixteen Bills have landed on injured reserve - most notably running back
The Bills gave up an average of 32.0 points per game during their skid, but thrived in a spoiler role while snapping it last week, routing AFC West-leading Denver 40-14. Buffalo picked off Tim Tebow four times - doubling its interception total from the seven-game losing streak - while beleaguered quarterback
Fitzpatrick had thrown 12 interceptions during the slide.
"It obviously feels a lot better," said coach Chan Gailey, who rewarded his players with three days off after the victory. "It took all three phases playing well and winning each phase to win a ball game. We're not that good of a football team yet that we can go win with just winning one or two phases."
However, the thrill of the win was tempered by Monday's injury news. Starting offensive linemen
New England's line is dealing with injury woes of its own as the playoffs near. Left tackle Matt Light didn't play last week after hurting his ankle in pregame warmups, and left guard Logan Mankins suffered a knee injury in the first quarter. Brady was sacked four times, matching a season high.
The Bills are 0-9 all-time at Gillette Stadium and have lost 10 straight road games to the Patriots since a 16-13 overtime win Nov. 5, 2000, during Belichick's first season as New England's head coach.