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BILLS ACTING LIKE PRIME-TIME PLAYERS
TEAM SEEKS UPSET OVER PATS TONIGHT

Mike Mularkey was asked Friday night if he was excited about participating in his first prime-time, nationally televised game as Buffalo Bills head coach.

His response: Not exactly.

"What I'm excited about is I think our guys are into it right now," Mularkey said. "We've had a lot of energy this week. We've had good preparation."

The Bills take the field against the New England Patriots tonight with a greater sense of confidence than they have had in more than a year.

They have won three of the last four. They're coming off a win against a quality opponent in the New York Jets. At 3-5, they're threatening to climb out of the 0-4 pit they dug themselves to open the season.

It's time to find out if the Bills are ready for prime time.

"We're starting to develop some confidence in what we're doing offensively, but to go on the road against the defending world champs is obviously a great challenge, no matter what's going on with the rest of your year," said quarterback Drew Bledsoe. "We're starting to find our way a bit. But this is obviously a huge, huge challenge this week."

The Bills can establish themselves as a team on the rise with a win over the Patriots, who stand 7-1. Bills fans even could start to entertain dreams of a long-shot sprint to a playoff berth if Mularkey's club can pull an upset.

The Bills only have defeated a defending Super Bowl champion on the road twice in their history (1975 at Pittsburgh, 1993 at Dallas). So a win over the AFC East's colossus would make their season, even if it doesn't catapult them to a great stretch run.

"We're going to try to do something we've had trouble doing -- winning at New England," said center Trey Teague. "We're not looking beyond that. We don't need any more motivation for this game than that."

The Bills have lost three straight in Foxboro, including last season's embarrassing 31-0 finale. They gave the Pats a tough game in Buffalo six weeks ago, losing, 31-17.

But the Pats are more depleted today than they were in any of those games.

New England is without both starting cornerbacks, Pro Bowler Ty Law and Tyrone Poole. Asante Samuel, who has a sore shoulder, will start at one corner. He was a fourth-round pick last year. Randall Gay, a rookie free agent, starts at the other. In passing situations, the Pats will either move stellar free safety Eugene Wilson down to corner or insert another free agent plucked off the street, Earthwind Moreland.

Star pass-rushing linebacker Mike Vrabel might sit out with a sore leg. Bills right tackle Mike Williams (sore neck) is expected to play.

The injuries did not stop New England from crushing a pass-oriented St. Louis team, 40-22, last week.

"It is a team that, regardless of where a guy has fallen from injury, some guy has stepped in and they have not missed a beat," Mularkey said. "A lot of that just has to do with being a focused, disciplined football team. You have to be on your toes and know that you can't make a lot of mistakes because they aren't going to make them, regardless of who is in there."

Mistakes typically sabotage the Bills against the Pats. In last year's game in Gillette Stadium, they lost the turnover battle, 4-1. Six weeks ago, Pats defensive tackle Richard Seymour returned a fumble recovery for a touchdown with 2:44 left to decide the game.

Bledsoe has gone 49 pass attempts without an interception or a sack.

"I think he is more confident in the pocket," Mularkey said. "When he is moving, he is finding the check-downs quicker. I think he throws the deep ball great, and we are opening it up a little more for him for that. Obviously, the run game helps, but some of the things we have done scheme-wise, I think, has helped, too, in his confidence."

Of course, the emergence of running back Willis McGahee has been the biggest factor in the Bills' improved offensive efficiency. McGahee will shoot for his fourth 100-yard outing in four starts.

McGahee has boosted the Bills' red-zone efficiency with three rushing touchdowns. In the last meeting the Bills failed to get in the end zone on two trips inside the Pats' 20.

The Pats' defense ranks No. 1 in the AFC in the red zone, holding foes to touchdowns on just 35 percent of their trips inside the 20.

That may be where tonight's game is decided.

"You just don't see many big plays against their defense," Bledsoe said. "They make you march down the field in chunks. Then when they get into red zone, they condense their coverage and do a great job of covering your guys and making plays. When I was there (in 2001), that was how the defense was. It wasn't like they stopped people cold. They just made plays."

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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