Last November, the Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills by 46 points.
On Sunday, the Bills lost by 36 fewer but their pain and frustration was infinitely greater.
The drip, drip, drip of a grinding New England offense sapped the Bills’ defensive reserves. A Patriots defense that held the Bills to a field goal over the first 58 minutes left them searching for answers.
"The New England Patriots put their pants on just like we do and they get paid just as well as we do and their coaches scheme just like we do," Bills tackle Langston Walker astutely observed after the Patriots 20-10 win put Buffalo's playoff hopes in peril. "Whether it was them outdueling us or outscheming us or us shooting ourselves in the foot, we just can’t have that."
Shock and Awe, 56-10 annihilations directed by a future Hall of Fame quarterback are so 2007 for the Pats. Now it’s 19-play, 92-yard, game-icing drives directed by a used-to-be-scrub that leave opponents muttering at their shoes.
"We thought we were on the verge of changing the culture of the clubhouse," said Bills linebacker Kawika Mitchell. "We are not where we want to be and it is disappointing and that is terrible."
New England's a whole different kind of scary now. Opponents don't spend the week worrying how to keep up with them. They spend Sunday night wondering how they could have possibly lost to them.
The diminished Patriots of the post-Brady Era are now 6-3. They put Sunday's game to bed with the aforementioned 19-play drive that started with 11 minutes left and New England ahead 13-3 and ended with two minutes left and the Patriots up 20-3. There were four third-down conversions on the drive led by Tom Brady’s replacement, Matt Cassel. Sam Aiken, Heath Evans, Jabar Gaffney and BenJarvus Green-Ellis were the players who converted them. Not exactly a fantasy dream team.
Not that that matters to New England, which, having dealt the Bills their third straight AFC East loss in as many games, now turns its attention to Thursday night’s matchup with the 6-3 Jets (47-3 winners over St. Louis).
"It's the meat of our schedule," Bruschi continued. "The first goal you have is you want to win your division. That's what all the teams in this division want to do and we’re kind of log-jammed right now and the one that can duke it out the best will be the one that gets to put on those hats and T-shirts."
The Patriots old lions -- Bruchi, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Kevin Faulk, Matt Light, Dan Koppen, etc. -- have been engaging in dukes-up, bareknuckle football brawls since many of their opponents were in high school.
And the newer Patriots who may have been in high school themselves when New England won its first Super Bowl back in 2001 players like quarterback Matt Cassel (23 for 34, 1 rushing TD, 0 TDs, 0 picks and 1 sack) and rookie running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (26 carries, 105 yards) -- are infused with the culture of winning and unflappability that’s become a hallmark of the Pats run of dominance.
They are exceedingly hard to beat because they usually don't beat themselves. Last Sunday against the Colts was an exception. A bad penalty, a dropped touchdown pass, poor management of second-half timeouts and an 18-15 loss at Indy overshadowed a very solid overall performance.
Nine out of 10 times, the Patriots outlast their opponents by playing cleaner, crisper and smarter. Is that experience something they hold as a trump card?
"I never want to go to that," said Bruschi. "I never want to say, 'We're experienced, does that give us an advantage?' It all depends what you do on Thursday. To think just because we’ve won before ... we've got a young quarterback. We’ve got a young RB. We're sort of a different team now and we have a lot of younger guys who haven’t been in this situation before."
But New England does have that in its backpocket. Despite playing in 2008 without Brady or departed corner Asante Samuel or running backs LaMont Jordan, Sammie Morris or Laurence Maroney or starting strong safety Rodney Harrison, the Patriots find a way. They always find a way.
And while no team with anything on the line relished playing them last year when they went 16-0 during the regular season, the same holds true now. It's not the same full-frontal assault they employed last year. But the hand-to-hand guerilla warfare of 2008 is proving to be almost as devastating.
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