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BILLS MAKE A RUN FOR IT
MCGAHEE PRIMED TO TEST PATRIOTS' GROUND CREW

Bill Belichick, defensive genius, was providing gracious and fairly comprehensive answers in discussing what he likes about the Buffalo Bills.

The New England Patriots coach nearly stopped in his tracks when asked about his own team, particularly its run defense as it heads into Sunday night's game against Willis McGahee in Gillette Stadium.

"I think it could be better, that's for sure," Belichick said curtly.

McGahee's emergence and the Bills' surging confidence certainly can't ease Belichick's concern.

The Bills (3-5) are unbeaten with McGahee as their starter. Last week, he became only the third NFL back since 1970 to rush for more than 100 yards in his first three starts.

"We seem more happier and happier every day," said McGahee, who will be playing his first NFL game in prime time. "We want to keep that feeling.

"We need to go out there and do what we've been doing the past two or three games. We've been moving the ball successfully, opening up the passing lanes. I feel if we keep doing that we can't be stopped."

The Patriots' secondary is hurting. Top cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole will be in street clothes. But the Bills might not want to get into a shootout as long as McGahee stays hot.

The Patriots (7-1) haven't had much success against good running backs this season. They rank 21st in rushing defense, allowing 119 yards a game.

But take out their two performances against the run-challenged Arizona Cardinals and Miami Dolphins, and the Patriots are giving up a whopping 144.7 yards, nearly 30 yards above the NFL average and only 5 yards behind the league's worst run stoppers, the Cincinnati Bengals.

Two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers ended the Patriots' win streak at 21 games by rushing for 221 yards and 12 first downs, holding the ball for 42:58. The Indianapolis Colts rolled up 202 yards and 13 first downs on the ground against the Pats in the opener.

"We haven't played well enough," Belichick replied when asked to elaborate on his defense's ranking against the run. "That's what it is because that's what it's been. That's the level we've played at. We need to do a better job defensively. . . . There's plenty of things we need to work on."

But you won't hear presumptuous comments coming from One Bills Drive regarding the Super Bowl champions' defense and their Svengali coach.

"We're expecting (Belichick) is going to throw something different at us," Bills guard Chris Villarrial said. "We know that's coming."

Said Bills coach Mike Mularkey: "They know you're going to try and run the ball. They know your M.O. It's just going to be one of those 'who's the better man,' whether you're running or throwing the ball."

McGahee's obvious contributions aside, the Bills' rushing stats are nothing to brag about.

They're 19th in rushing yards per game (109). They're 29th in average yards per carry (3.5).

Against the Patriots on Oct. 3, the Bills had 138 rushing yards and a 5.3 average, but that included a 34-yard jaunt by punter Brian Moorman.

"The thing that makes me optimistic about what we've done and what we are doing," Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe said, "is the type of offense (Mularkey) has preached since the first time I talked to him is starting to show its head a little bit.

"The power running game that we talked about is starting to show up. Willis is doing a great job for us. Our offensive line, I talked about them from the beginning of the year that I believed they could be a very physical and very good group, and they're really starting to show that."

Bills fullback Daimon Shelton is looking forward to Sunday night's matchup. He couldn't hide a toothy grin when asked about the ground game setting up the play-action pass.

The Bills hit a pair of long play-action passes in the first game against the Pats, 55 yards to Lee Evans and 41 to Eric Moulds.

"We're definitely building confidence with our running game the last three weeks," Shelton said. "It's affected the play-action pass a great deal because defenses have to really respect the run, with Willis putting up the numbers he has. I think we're going to be able to exploit that more."
e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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