Tom Brady was on the sideline by the time the New England Patriots finished their 31-point destruction of the Miami Dolphins in Week 17 last season, the eighth straight victory in a streak that had them firmly entrenched as the NFL's team to beat heading into the playoffs.
Little did they know they wouldn't win again.
A second straight early exit from the postseason prompted the Patriots to add some high-profile veterans, moves they hope can help expedite their ascent back to NFL dominance beginning with Monday night's season opener in Miami.
For much of 2010, the 14-2 Patriots seemed to be doing their best impression of the 2007 club that won its first 18 games before ultimately coming up short in Super Bowl XLII.
The 38-7 win over the Dolphins in the regular season's final week capped an 8-0 second half in which New England averaged 37.4 points, and only once in five post-November games did it allow more than a touchdown.
That gave the Patriots home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs and made them an overwhelming favorite to reach their fifth Super Bowl of the Bill Belichick era, but instead, they fizzled out early. Brady and the Patriots were uncharacteristically sloppy in a 28-21 divisional loss to the Jets, the same team they'd beaten 45-3 six weeks earlier.
After winning 11 straight home playoff games since the previous defeat in 1978, New England has lost its postseason opener in Foxborough in back-to-back seasons.
"You realize how tough it is to win games over the years," Brady told the Patriots' official website. "And I think that when you're out there as a veteran player and you provide the leadership for the team because you've been experienced - I've been experienced in this program - we're hoping to go out there every year and put together a winning season. It's frustrating when we don't do that."
Once the lockout ended, New England was busy. The Patriots made a trade with Cincinnati on July 28 for six-time Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco, and on that same day landed talented but troubled defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth from Washington.
New England is counting on Ochocinco to give Brady another solid target in addition to Wes Welker, Deion Branch and tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, and that group will face an excellent test Monday. Miami's cornerback duo of Vontae Davis and Sean Smith is, to hear Davis describe it, "the best tandem in the league."
Combined with a linebacking unit that features star Cameron Wake - who finished third in the NFL with 14 sacks last season - and veteran Jason Taylor, the Dolphins' defense has Brady sufficiently concerned.
"It's a dangerous group," Brady said. "They're experienced in the secondary. They've been playing together now for a little while and they're very good, especially when the pass rush gets going."
Despite those names, the Dolphins produced a franchise-low 19 turnovers in 2010. New England, meanwhile, gave the ball away an incredible 10 times - the fewest in a 16-game season in NFL history.
"Teams playing deep into January are teams whose turnover ratio is pretty good," Miami coach Tony Sparano said.
The Patriots forced 38 turnovers - tops in the AFC - but spent the offseason looking to build more pressure up front.
Haynesworth is one of four veterans - Mark Anderson, Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis are the others - new to a defensive line that expects to use more of a 4-3 look than its typical 3-4 in an attempt to create more chaos in the backfield.
They'll still be chasing quarterback Chad Henne. Despite rumors of a trade for Denver's Kyle Orton, chants of "We want Orton!" from fans during training camp and the actual signing of former Panther Matt Moore, Sparano is sticking with Henne, who played well during the preseason.
Gone are Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. In their place, Reggie Bush and second-round pick Daniel Thomas.
There's little room to go but up. The Dolphins averaged 3.7 yards per carry and 17.1 points last season, both 30th in the league. They also lost three times by three points or fewer - all at home, where they were a dreadful 1-7.
"If you win some of the close games, we're not having this conversation," receiver Brian Hartline said. "But we didn't. There are things we need to fix. We're fixing them. And we're going to be a better team."
Brady has nine touchdowns, two interceptions and a 138.8 quarterback rating in his last three visits to Miami.
New England has won seven straight games on opening weekend, the NFL's second-longest active streak behind Pittsburgh's eight. The Dolphins, meanwhile, have lost their past five home openers.