In a game of strange coincidences, the Patriots won 31-0 Saturday behind Tom Brady's four scoring passes in the first half and the defense's third shutout in four home games.
That was the score of Buffalo's win over New England in the season opener. In both games, the winner stopped the opponent's final play from the 1-yard line to preserve the shutout. And Brady rebounded from his four-interception disaster in the opener.
"We proved we were a different team than that first day," he said.
The Patriots (14-2) assured themselves of home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Their best regular season ever gives them a shot at their second Super Bowl championship in three years and made them the second team since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to win their last 12 regular-season games. Miami did it in 1972.
Their first playoff game, on the field where they went 8-0 this season, will be Jan. 10 or 11 against the lowest remaining seeded team after next weekend's wild-card games.
"As exciting as it is, you've got to stay calm," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "The same things that win in the playoffs won in the regular season."
For the third straight year there will be no playoff berth for Buffalo (6-10). Coach Gregg Williams, at the end of his three-year contract, might not return.
"That's not my decision," he said after the Bills' seventh loss in nine games. "We've all got to get better."
General manager Tom Donahoe said there was no timetable for making that decision.
Williams' future seemed safe when the Bills started at 2-0, especially with their impressive win over the Patriots.
"After the way the season started, I couldn't imagine being in this situation," Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe said.
But that start motivated the Patriots on Saturday.
"If you're a fighter, you're going to come back," New England safety Rodney Harrison said. "Regardless of if you come out and say it, you want revenge."
The Patriots' offense, facing the NFL's second-ranked defense, finally had a big game as Brady threw touchdown passes on three of their first four possessions in a span of less than 16 minutes.
They covered 1 yard to Daniel Graham, 9 yards to Bethel Johnson and 15 yards to Troy Brown. The fourth touchdown pass, a 10-yarder to David Givens, made it 28-0 with 3:55 left in the half.
"That's what you're playing for every week, try to get on the board as fast as you can to keep the pressure on the defense," Johnson said.
And to keep the opponent off the board late. Larry Izzo preserved the 31-0 win by intercepting Travis Brown's pass in the end zone with 13 seconds left with the ball at the 1.
"This team wanted to keep that zero on the board," Izzo said. "It was just a hard-sell play action and I was able not to bite up on it."
There was one scary moment in the second quarter when Brady hobbled off the field after being hit in the left knee by former Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy. Brady said afterward he was fine.
"It was a blitz and I got upended," said Milloy, one of Brady's close friends. "I wasn't trying to hurt him."
But he stayed in the game until 7:03 remained when he ran off the field with his index finger raised as Damon Huard replaced him.
Brady went 21-for-32 for 204 yards with no interceptions. Bledsoe completed just 12 of 29 passes for 83 yards and one interception and was sacked three times. He averaged 179 yards passing in his 16 games after setting 10 franchise records last season.
The only points the Patriots needed came on the game's opening drive during which they ran the first eight plays without a running back. Brady went six for seven for 35 yards on quick throws and had two 11-yard runs for first downs.
The Bills' played without three starting offensive linemen.
Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown missed the game for personal reasons and Donahoe said he hadn't been suspended. They also played without right tackle Mike Williams, who had a strained knee, and left tackle Jonas Jennings, who is on injured reserve with a toe injury.
Still, the Patriots dominated just as they had been dominated in the opener by the same score.
"It's amazing," New England tackled Matt Light said. "It's poetic justice."
- Eric Moulds had seven catches, making him the second Bills player to pass 500. He has 506. Andre Reed has 941.
- The Patriots outscored opponents 108-22 in their last six home games.
- New England has won the last 22 games in which it led at halftime.
The Associated Press News Service
Copyright 2003, The Associated Press, All Rights Reserved