- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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The smiles on their faces betrayed them.
"That team down there," one of them said before a Wednesday practice, "is on a downward spiral."
The unedited version included an emphatic F-bomb -- as an adjective.
Based on the early returns, it was an observation that made sense. The Patriots had been in disarray five days after they released Milloy, their popular, four-time Pro Bowl safety. New England quarterback Tom Brady, who had made Bledsoe expendable by winning Super Bowl XXXVI, threw four interceptions.
Bledsoe, meanwhile, completed 17 of 28 passes for 230 yards and one touchdown. Milloy had five tackles, one sack and a pass deflection that resulted in an interception in the end zone. The Bills looked like the Super Bowl contenders they were widely predicted to be.
At the Patriots' facility in Foxboro, Mass., cornerback Ty Law, a close friend of Milloy's, was livid. "How can we be a better team when our best player is gone?" he asked.
Law accused Patriots management of not caring about winning -- the worst charge a player can level at a team. A downward (expletive deleted) spiral, indeed.
Some 111 days later, when the Patriots meet the Bills in the season finale at Gillette Stadium on Saturday, the world is an exceedingly different place:
Saddam Hussein, that scruffy spider hole denizen, is under lock and key.
Sandra Diaz-Twine, a 29-year-old office worker from Fort Lewis, Wash., is the winner of the seventh Survivor series.
Curt Schilling will now pitch for the Red Sox.
The Patriots, it turns out, are really, really good. The Bills? They are something less than, well, superb.
After losing the first game, New England won 13 of 14 games and clinched the AFC East title with three games left to play. The current 11-game winning streak is the league's longest since 1999. If the Patriots defeat Buffalo, they will hold home-field advantage through the playoffs over teams like the Chiefs, Titans, Colts and Broncos.
Brady's performance has mirrored the team's. He has been steady, efficient and brilliant in tight spots. He has a modest 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, but has led New England to rousing victories over Miami, Denver, Houston and Indianapolis. Rookie Eugene Wilson has replaced Milloy at free safety, allowing free agent Rodney Harrison to play his usual position, strong safety.
The Bills started 2-0, but have lost nine of 13 games since. Head coach Gregg Williams is thought to be coaching his final game in Buffalo. Bledsoe is suffering through the worst season of his 11 in the NFL. He has only 11 touchdowns this year and is averaging 185 passing yards per game. On six occasions, the offense has failed to produce a single touchdown.
"It's probably my most frustrating season because I anticipated us being a much better team than we have been," Bledsoe told reporters after last Sunday's 20-3 loss to the Dolphins. "We started the season very strong and I really felt like we were going to be a contender in this league. We just simply have not played well enough offensively to get that done."
Milloy, oddly enough, is having a pretty good year. He is third on the team with 126 tackles, behind linebackers London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes, and has 14 passes defensed, three sacks and two forced fumbles. The Bills' defense is ranked second in the league.
The Patriots have been low-key this week regarding the first game against Buffalo. The players won't say it publicly, but they can't wait for an opportunity to pay back those Bills. Mostly, it's because head coach Bill Belichick has been using that loss all season long as an example of the Patriots' supposed vulnerability.
New England's 21-16 victory over the New York Jets last Saturday night was only minutes old when Belichick brought up the Bills in the visiting locker room at Giants Stadium.
"We go into meetings sometimes and we come out feeling like we lost," Harrison said after the game. "He never really tells us we did a great job. It's always a focus on what we need to get better.
"And that's a plus for us."
When he met with the media last Monday, Belichick was as understated as his hooded sweatshirt he wore on the sidelines against the Jets.
"Hopefully, we can play a little more competitively than we did the last time we faced them," he said. "That's objective No. 1 -- at least make it a game.
"I think almost half of our plays in the first 40 plays were negative plays: sacks, turnovers, penalties, some version of all of those. Almost half the time we were going in reverse instead of going forward. That's not what we're looking for. We gave up 50-yard completions, pass-interference penalties, penalties in the kicking game, you name it. Take your pick."
Belichick was asked about the state of the 6-9 Bills, following their loss to Miami.
"It's not really about how they match up against somebody else," he said. "It's how they match up against us. We're playing them -- that's what counts. The last time they matched up pretty well."
Greg Garber is a senior staff writer for ESPN.com
20hBy Ian O'Connor