FOXBOROUGH - The AFC East crown had begun to feel a bit like a birthright for the Patriots entering last season. They had won it five consecutive seasons, but last year their reign over the division ended and so did their season without a trip to the playoffs.
All offseason, the Patriots had to listen to Miami Dolphins players talk about how they’re the defending division champions and Jets coach Rex Ryan pontificate that neither he nor his team are intimidated by coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots. If nothing else, tonight’s season opener against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium is an opportunity for Belichick and the boys to send a message to their AFC East brethren - Tom Brady is back and we’re once again the Eastern standard.
The Patriots will don their 1963 replica throwback uniforms tonight to celebrate the 50th season since the American Football League was founded, and they’ll try to turn back the clock on their divisional dominance. Since 2001, the Patriots have the best record against division opponents of any team in the NFL (39-11).
It’s easy to forget that even without their franchise quarterback, who has looked fully recovered from season-ending anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligament tears in his left knee, the Patriots went 11-5 a year ago and 4-2 in the division, tying Miami’s regular-season record.
It was two division defeats at home - Miami’s 38-13 Wildcat win and the Jets’ 34-31 overtime triumph - that kept the Patriots out of the postseason. If either of those games were wins, the Patriots would have been playing in January instead of sitting at home.
With that in mind, it’s important to come out of the gate this season with a division win against the reshuffled Bills.
“Oh, it’s very important,’’ said left guard Logan Mankins. “If you look at it, last year we didn’t make the playoffs because we didn’t win the division. Those games, it comes down to those games at the end of the year.
“You know those are very important games. They’re usually tough games because you’ve played those guys so many times, so coming down to it you would like to go 6-0 in your division, but we’re going to start this week trying to go 1-0.’’
The last time the Patriots played a game that actually counted was against Buffalo, a 13-0 win on Dec. 28, 2008. That’s not an usual result against the Bills.
The Patriots have beaten the Bills 11 straight times dating to 2003. Desperate to end that streak, Buffalo imported wide receiver Terrell Owens, implemented a no-huddle attack, and overhauled its offensive line, which will feature two rookies in left guard Andy Levitre and right guard Eric Wood, and just one returning starter, Brad Butler, who shifted from right guard to right tackle.
The Patriots made changes of their own geared toward restoring their position atop the division.
They rebuilt their secondary, adding veteran cornerbacks Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs, and said goodbye to veteran stalwarts Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi (retirement) and Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour (trades). The defense has a different look both in personnel and alignment, as the Patriots showed more four-man fronts during the exhibition season.
On offense, Brady was given new weapons in running back Fred Taylor, tight end Chris Baker, and wide receiver Joey Galloway. Any extra motivation the Bills might have is negated by the Patriots’ desire to reclaim their AFC East crown.
“It’s the start of the season. Everybody is motivated. It’s not just Buffalo. It’s not just us. It’s everybody in the National Football League,’’ said linebacker Pierre Woods. “You want to get off to a good start. I mean, they’re going to want to come in and establish the things that they’re doing, as well as . . . we want to establish the things that we’re doing, so it’s going to be a [heck] of a game.’’
Belichick stresses the importance of each game to his players. He said the urgency would be the same whether his team was playing a division opponent or not on opening night, but allowed that facing a division foe does add some intrigue.
“I think whoever is out there, I think we’re going to be excited to play against, whoever that happens to be, we can’t control that,’’ Belichick said. “But it’s an important game. Every game is an important home game. Home opener against a division rival - that’s a big game, doesn’t get any bigger than that. I think everybody’s excited, everybody will do their best to get ready to go, and I hope we can go out there and play well.’’
Tonight marks the first step for the Patriots in what they hope will be a return road to the playoffs. But any path to the postseason rides through the division.
The Patriots might not like hearing that the Dolphins are the defending division champions, but it’s a fact. Starting tonight, they have a chance to do something about it.
“You got to earn it man, you got to earn it each and every year,’’ said Woods. “It’s not given to you.’’