In January 2005, after the New England Patriots cruised to a 14-2 record and were beginning their playoff run to Super Bowl XXXIX, then-Indianapolis Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt memorably declared, "I think [the Patriots] are ripe for the picking."
"I think they're not as good as the beginning of the year and not as good as last year," Vanderjagt said at the time, referring in the latter case to the Patriots' Super Bowl-winning season in 2003.
Vanderjagt had to eat his words back then -- the Colts lost to the Patriots 20-3 in that playoff game -- but more than a decade later, could his statement apply to the unbeaten, banged-up Patriots as they prepare to host the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football?
This might not be a playoff game and the Patriots are virtually certain to make the postseason whether they win or lose Monday night, but there are several parallels between the two situations.
As they were in 2004, the Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champions. When they hosted the Colts in the divisional playoffs that season, the Patriots had won eight of their previous nine games; this year, the Patriots are riding a nine-game winning streak to start the season. And as was the case in 2004, when the Patriots were trying to get by with undrafted rookie Randall Gay and veteran wide receiver Troy Brown playing defensive back after top cornerback Ty Law broke his foot, injuries have depleted perhaps the NFL's best team.
When Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 54-yard field goal Sunday evening to defeat the New York Giants and keep the Patriots' undefeated season alive, New England was playing without its top wide receiver (Julian Edelman), its top running back (Dion Lewis), its top three offensive tackles (Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon), its top linebacker (Jamie Collins) and one of its starting cornerbacks from the start of the regular season (Tarell Brown).
There is a possibility that Vollmer, Cannon and Collins all could return for Monday's game, but the Patriots will notably be without the services of Edelman, who is expected to miss at least the next month with a broken foot. Edelman had 11 catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns in the Patriots' Week 2 win over the Bills, helping to power the New England offense on a day when Tom Brady passed for 466 yards, the second-highest total of his career and the most against the Bills in their history.
Beyond tight end Rob Gronkowski, who figures to attract more attention from defenses who no longer have to worry about Edelman, Brady's top passing targets are expected to be receivers Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell, Keshawn Martin and former Bills tight end Scott Chandler.
Is that group depleted enough to give the Bills a chance at Gillette Stadium, where they have won just once since the facility opened in 2002 -- a Week 17 victory last season when the Patriots rested Edelman and Gronkowski while giving backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo the nod for the second half?
Obviously, that's the Bills' hope.
Bolstering the Bills' confidence as they travel to New England will be an offense that finally has all of its key pieces healthy. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor has shaken off ankle and knee injuries. Running back LeSean McCoy is well past a hamstring injury and looks as explosive as he has been in a Bills uniform. Receiver Sammy Watkins -- who is working back from calf and ankle injuries -- got the better of Darrelle Revis on a key fourth-quarter play in a victory over the New York Jets last Thursday.
Collectively, the Bills are 3-1 this season when Taylor, McCoy and Watkins have played a full game and two of those wins -- in Week 1 over the Colts and Week 9 over the Miami Dolphins -- were essentially blowouts.
Of course, the Colts and Dolphins are both a far cry from the Patriots, who "waxed" the Bills -- as coach Rex Ryan termed it last week -- in Week 2 when the Bills' offensive triplets were healthy.
That is why, in part, it is highly unlikely that Bills players this week will go to the lengths of Vanderjagt -- whom former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning once called an "idiot kicker" -- to describe the Patriots' position as they are set to host the Bills. Ryan, although unpredictable when in front of a microphone, should have enough respect for the Patriots not to go the Vanderjagt route this week.
Still, the circumstances around Vanderjagt's comment in 2005 and where the Patriots stand now are too similar to ignore. Right or wrong, the question is relevant this week: Are the Patriots ripe for the picking?