It was probably the low point after the first Super Bowl win in February 2002. The next season was filled with trials and tribulations as the Patriots went 9-7, missing the playoffs. Bill Belichick talks about it in ''Patriots Reign": ''I'm tired of thinking our team is good against Detroit, Buffalo's [expletive] offensive line, and Philly's third-string offense. I don't give a [expletive] about that. We're one of the bottom five teams defensively in the league. We suck at stopping the run. We're bad in the red area. And we can't get off the field on third down."
Two Super Bowl championships later, things improved dramatically.
Yet, as the Patriots prepare for Sunday night's game against Buffalo, coming off their bye week, some things haven't changed.
For instance, Buffalo still has an ''expletive" offensive line. The Patriots again are a ''bottom five" team in points allowed (164). They are giving up 125.3 rushing yards per game and 4.15 yards per carry (they allowed 4.7 yards per carry in 2002). The league average is 4.06 yards per carry, so this one isn't so bad.
The Patriots have allowed 117 red zone points -- 15 touchdowns and 4 field goals in 19 red zone trips. Their ''getting off the field on third down" is middle-of-the-road, 15th in the NFL (out of 76 third downs, 27 have been converted, 35.53 percent).
But as Game 7 approaches, the worm appears to be turning.
When the Patriots lost, 28-20, to the Broncos in Denver 10 days ago, the outlook wasn't bright. Since then, Tedy Bruschi has rejoined the team, Richard Seymour's health has improved, and it looks as though Corey Dillon, who missed the Denver game, will be back for the Bills game. And the opposition in the AFC East appears inept.
While it's still too early to tell whether Bruschi will play -- today he'll have his first contact with full gear in practice -- his mere presence in uniform when he's announced Sunday to what might be one of the greatest ovations in Patriots history should give his teammates an emotional jolt.
If Bruschi does play, and plays like the Bruschi of old, and Seymour returns, the revamped front seven should give Buffalo's porous offensive line fits and make Bills quarterback Kelly Holcomb long for the comfort of being No. 2 behind J.P. Losman.
The Bills, who played very poorly in a 38-17 thrashing at Oakland last week, are one of the most disappointing teams in the league. We constantly hear that there is no carryover in the NFL from week to week -- good or bad -- but how can you not see worse things ahead for the Bills.
They were expected to contend with the Patriots because of their ''championship level" defense. They were supposed to be neck and neck with the Jets in the AFC East hierarchy. And new Miami coach Nick Saban was supposed to be showing Belichick-like qualities with the Dolphins, though the only similarity at this stage of Saban's NFL career is that both he and Belichick share a disdain for the media.
The Bills have very good skilled players in running back Willis McGahee and receivers Eric Moulds and Lee Evans, but the great unknown was how Losman would react to taking over as the starter. He didn't do very well. Give coach Mike Mularkey credit: He made the switch before things got out of hand, and got a temporary boost from Holcomb, who won his first two starts. But the Bills took a major turn for the worse against a one-win Oakland team.
The Bills miss injured Pro Bowl linebacker Takeo Spikes, but is one missing player causing that much of a disruption in the defense?
Holcomb is a drop-back passer and said he didn't have enough time to throw downfield against Oakland. Bills quarterbacks have been sacked 18 times.
If you were the Bills, what would you want to do to the Patriots? Throw the ball downfield to take advantage of the breakdowns in the New England secondary? But if you have no time to throw, you can't exploit those weaknesses.
The Bills were manhandled on both lines last week. It's evident they miss nose tackle Pat Williams, who left for Minnesota as a free agent. That must have Dillon's eyes lighting up like a Christmas tree. Ankle injury or no ankle injury, he must want to face the Buffalo run defense. Of course, Dillon's average of 3.4 yards per carry is significantly down from the 4.7 yards of 2004.
But the Bills are ranked 31st in run defense. They can't get off the field, either. In 81 third-down situations, opponents have converted 37, a whopping 45.68 percent. The Bills have allowed 113 red zone points (the Raiders scored four of their five touchdowns from the red zone).
''We have to start having some consistency, and that's swarming to the football," said Mularkey. ''That's 11 guys meeting at the football every time, and we're not getting that right now for one reason or another."
The Patriots are in first place at 3-3 and appear to be getting healthier as they approach a far easier stretch of schedule than they played in the first six weeks. Their AFC East opponents are clinging to the ledge for dear life. Now it's up to the Patriots to begin stepping on the fingers, one by one.