The Patriots are right back where this season really began, the AFC Championship game.
It was last season's gut-wrenching 38-34 AFC title game loss to the Indianapolis Colts that served as the impetus for the creation of Patriots version 2.0, a team built to defeat the high-scoring Colts at their own game, except that now it won't have to in order to reach the Super Bowl.
Instead of a playoff rematch with Peyton Manning and Co., the Patriots find a more recent rival, the San Diego Chargers, making the trip to Foxborough to play for the AFC championship.
The Chargers stunned the Colts, 28-24, yesterday at the RCA Dome, scoring the winning points on a drive led by backup quarterback Billy Volek, and rendering moot the inevitable Brady-Manning and Belichick-Dungy debates.
Regardless of the opponent, the Patriots' focus remains on erasing the bad memories of last year's AFC title tilt by winning this one.
"We've put in a lot of hard work and effort and we've played a lot of football games to get to the exact same point that we were at last year," said coach Bill Belichick. "You just don't play the game that we played in last year and then show up and play another one.
"You've got to play. You've got to earn a lot along the way to get to that point and we've done that and with all that work and all that effort. Whatever we've done to get to this point now we're at the same point we were last year, and I think the big thing now is that we understand what we have to do going forward. Hopefully, we'll be able to do better this time."
To reach this point, the top-seeded and undefeated Patriots overwhelmed the Jacksonville Jaguars, 31-20, Saturday night at Gillette Stadium.
In their path stands a San Diego team that is playing nothing like the shell-shocked group that was shellacked by the Patriots, 38-14, in Week 2. Riding the emotional wave in the wake of Videogate, New England jumped out to a 24-0 lead, turning a primetime showdown into an embarrassing rout.
But that was gridiron eons ago, when freakishly athletic cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who led the NFL with 10 interceptions, was not even a starter. New coach Norv Turner was trying to figure out how to utilize LaDainian Tomlinson, who ended up leading the NFL in rushing with 1,474 yards. Wide receiver Chris Chambers, who was acquired via trade in October, was still a member of the Miami Dolphins, and linebacker Shawne Merriman and his mates were adjusting to new defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell.
"Well, a lot has happened since then, and I think we'll definitely start all over on the preparations with them, just almost like it's a new team," said Belichick. "Then look back at some of the things we had back in September, but that was such a long time ago, and I think the most important thing for us to focus on is what the Chargers have done in the last couple of months."
All the Patriots (17-0) have done the last couple of months is win, but that doesn't deter the chatty Chargers, who usually talk about as good a game as they play.
"Seventeen have tried and it hasn't happened," said Rivers, who suffered a right knee injury against the Colts in the third quarter, joining Tomlinson, who bruised his left knee in the first half, on the sideline. "We think it can happen."
Like the Colts, the Chargers have some memorable playoff history with the Patriots.
San Diego was the top seed in the AFC playoffs last year and had New England on the ropes in the divisional round before the Patriots snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, or more accurately Troy Brown snatched the ball from San Diego safety Marlon McCree, who had made what seemed like a season-ending interception.
Given a second chance, Tom Brady hit Reche Caldwell with a 4-yard touchdown pass and Kevin Faulk's 2-point conversion rush tied the game with 4:36 left. The Patriots won it, 24-21, on Stephen Gostkowski's 31-yard field goal with 1:10 left. Then a few of them mocked Merriman's "Lights Out" dance, leading to some bad blood between the teams.
But the Patriots have plenty of past playoff motivation, too.
"You know, it's a hard road for us to climb," said wide receiver Randy Moss, who will be seeking his first trip to the Super Bowl. "You know, we are just going to keep chipping away at it. We've got a great group of guys here, and I think they know, as far as what happened to last year's team in the AFC Championship, I think these guys, the team is very, very focused to really not let something like that slip again."
That's coming from someone who wasn't even part of last year's indelible debacle in Indy.
"Our whole season is at stake, so is theirs," said Belichick. "It's a one-game season. One team moves on. One team goes home, so I don't think anything that's happened in the past really has all that much bearing on it. Whichever team performs the best on Sunday, that's the team that's moving on. We all know that and that's plenty right there."
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.