The New England Patriots carried the burden of having to defend a Super Bowl title last season. This year they are just another team trying to make the playoffs.
Coming off an improbable championship in 2001, the Patriots were an inconsistent team last year, but finished 9-7 and only missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker on the final day of the regular season.
Coach Bill Belichick wasn’t happy with a defense that ranked 23rd in the league, including 31st against the rush, so the organization added linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, safety Rodney Harrison and 365-pound nose tackle Ted Washington.
Although adding Colvin, Harrison and Washington should improve New England’s defense, it remains to be seen what effect the release of four-time Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy will have. Milloy, a team captain that had started 106 consecutive games, was released Tuesday and agreed Wednesday to sign with Buffalo.
“Has it ever been this quiet in here? I don’t think it has,” Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said Tuesday. “I think ‘shocked’ is the word. You sort of just shake your head and ask yourself, ‘Why?”’
Milloy’s signing with Buffalo adds even more intrigue to Sunday’s matchup. Milloy was expected to join the Bills for his first practice Thursday, but it is uncertain whether he would be ready to play against his former team.
Bledsoe had high praise for Milloy, having spent six seasons with him in New England.
“I will tell you this that everybody that plays against Lawyer is aware of where he is and aware of his ability to make big plays,” Bledsoe said. “As far as his speed, his aggressiveness, his physical style, I haven’t seen a falloff at all.”
“With this tragedy, we’re going to have to pull together even closer for this game in Buffalo,” Harris said. “I feel like I’m ready. I’m ready to go out there and show what I can do. I’m not any Lawyer Milloy. I’m Antwan. I have to take my abilities and put them on the field.”
Although he didn’t lead them to another Super Bowl, quarterback Tom Brady proved he was worthy of the starting job last season after Bledsoe was traded to Buffalo.
Brady led the NFL with 28 touchdown passes and threw just 14 interceptions last season. He threw six TDs and had no interceptions as New England went 4-0 in this preseason.
The running game remains a major concern for the Patriots, who only have Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk at the position. Smith rushed for 962 yards and six touchdowns last season after rushing for 1,157 yards and 12 TDs in 2001.
“They’ll both play for us,” Belichick said. “They both have a role to play for us. I hope both of them will be productive.”
The Patriots have won five straight against the Bills, including both meetings last season in Bledsoe’s first two games against his former team.
“Last year, it was pretty frustrating against them,” Bills receiver Eric Moulds said. “But the good thing about football is you get a new year and you have a new team. We’re coming out this year to erase what happened last year. It’s a fresh start for us. We have a chance to prove we can beat this team.”
Bledsoe made a major difference in his first season with the Bills following nine years in New England, leading them to an 8-8 record following a 3-13 finish in 2001.
Bledsoe set 10 franchise passing records, including single-season marks for yards, attempts and completions. He became the first Bill to pass for 4,000 yards in a season and earned his fourth Pro Bowl selection.
Although he passed for 630 yards and three TDs in two games against his former team, Bledsoe also threw five interceptions.
Despite Bledsoe’s presence and a prolific offense, a weak defense that allowed nearly 25 points per game kept the Bills out of the playoffs for a third straight season. Buffalo hopes the additions of linebacker Takeo Spikes and run-stuffing tackle Sam Adams will get them back to the postseason.
“If we’re not a playoff team, I’ll be greatly disappointed,” Bledsoe said. “I think that we can beat anybody.”
Even with the loss of No. 2 receiver Peerless Price via free agency, Buffalo shouldn’t struggle to score points. Moulds is coming off a career season in which he set a franchise record with 100 receptions, and running back Travis Henry finished fifth in the NFL with 1,438 yards rushing.
2002 STANDINGS: Patriots - 2nd place, AFC East. Bills - 4th place, AFC East.
2002 PATRIOTS LEADERS: Offense - Brady, 3,764 passing yards and 28 passing TDs; Smith, 982 rushing yards and 6 rushing TDs; Troy Brown, 97 receptions and 890 receiving yards; Christian Fauria, 7 receiving TDs. Defense - Roman Phifer, 67 tackles; Willie McGinest and Richard Seymour, 5 1/2 sacks; Terrell Buckley and Ty Law, 4 INTs.
2002 BILLS LEADERS: Offense - Bledsoe, 4,359 passing yards and 24 passing TDs; Henry, 1,438 rushing yards and 13 rushing TDs; Moulds, 100 receptions, 1,292 receiving yards and 10 receiving TDs. Defense - London Fletcher, 97 tackles; Aaron Schobel, 8 1/2 sacks; Nate Clements, 6 INTs.
2002 PATRIOTS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 94.3 yards per game (28th in NFL); Passing Offense - 223.6 ypg (12th); Total Offense - 317.9 ypg (21st). Rushing Defense - 137.4 ypg (31st); Passing Defense - 198.7 ypg (11th); Total Defense - 336.1 ypg (23rd).
2002 BILLS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 99.8 ypg (24th); Passing Offense - 249.7 ypg (5th); Total Offense - 349.5 ypg (11th). Rushing Defense - 132.6 ypg (29th); Passing Defense - 191.7 ypg (6th); Total Defense - 324.3 ypg (15th).
LAST MEETING: Dec. 8; Patriots, 27-17. At Foxboro, Mass., Bledsoe threw four interceptions in his first game back in Foxboro, while former understudy Brady passed for two touchdowns to lead New England.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Patriots - QB Brady is 4-0 in his career against Buffalo, with seven touchdowns and just one interception. … New England is 13-2 when RB Smith runs for a TD. … S Harrison is one of five players since 1982 with 20 or more sacks and interceptions. Bills - WR Moulds has receptions in a club-record 81 consecutive games. … Buffalo has 13 sacks in its last four games against New England. … Four of Buffalo’s past seven games against the Patriots have gone into overtime, and nine of the past 10 have been decided by 10 points or fewer.
2002 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Patriots - 4-4 on the road; Bills - 5-3 at home.