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Joyful Bills ready to leap into the fire

During the week after the Dallas loss, when the Bills were at rock bottom, Coy Wire got up in a meeting and told his teammates to heed some advice from his favorite book. When adversity strikes, be joyful, Wire said. It will make you that much stronger in the end.

"It's from the Bible," Wire told me last week. "James 1. Adversity helps your perseverance to grow. A heart of steel burns in the hottest coals. It gives us a chance to be burned and harden, and to come together and be solid."

The Bills stepped over the hot coals and kept on moving. No team in the league has suffered so much adversity, so many devastating injuries, but they persevered. They beat the Ravens and they haven't lost since. It hasn't been against the stiffest opposition, but after all they've been through, they're not apologizing.

As the good book suggested, the Bills remained joyful through adversity. There's an innocence about this team, a sense that many players are mainly grateful for the chance to prove themselves in the NFL. Say what you will about Marv Levy. There's a lot of character and intelligence in that locker room.

Tonight, however, they're walking into a fire the likes of which they've never seen. The unbeaten Patriots are in Buffalo for a national network TV game. No team in NFL history has ever been hotter for a nine-week stretch. Now, well-rested from a bye week, the Pats attempt to become the 10th team since 1970 to start a season 10-0.

The Bills are 5-4, on a four-game winning streak. Still, they're a 15 1/2 -point underdog. So if they pull it off, it could be the biggest upset in franchise history. Seasoned Bills watchers tell me no regular-season game could approach the opening win over Miami in 1980, which snapped a decade of futility.

But for pure dramatics, a win tonight on national TV could top them all. For a few days, at least, they would be the story of the league, at a time when Buffalo's long-term viability as an NFL franchise is being questioned. Maybe a win would convince some dubious Toronto business types that the franchise is worthy of investment.

With that in mind, I tried to convince myself the Bills could win tonight. I couldn't get there. The Pats are a merciless bunch these days, driven by history and the notion that their achievements were tainted by the video scandal. And the talent gap is simply too large.

I went over the teams, position by position, trying to find where the Bills might have an edge. It wasn't encouraging. You could make an argument that the Bills don't have the superior player at any of the 22 positions on the field.

The Bills' special teams are better, but not by much. The kickoff units are fairly even. Punting isn't much of an issue with the Pats. Chris Hanson hasn't punted enough to qualify among the leaders. New England's opponents have returned three punts the entire season.

Tom Brady is the best player in the game. Sorry, but Randy Moss gets the nod over Lee Evans at No. 1 receiver. At the other wideouts and tight end, it's no contest. I'd give Marshawn Lynch a slight edge over Laurence Maroney at running back, but Lynch probably won't play.

The Bills' offensive line is improved, but I can't give them an edge at any of the five spots. Jason Peters is a potential star at left tackle, but Matt Light is a proven commodity. How do you pick against any of the linemen from an offense averaging almost 40 points a game?

"Their offensive line doesn't get the amount of credit they should," said Perry Fewell, the Bills' defensive coordinator. "They're nasty. We have to bring our boxing gloves on Sunday, because if we don't, they'll knock you right out."

The Pats' defensive line isn't bad, either. Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay are good, but New England's ends, Richard Seymour and Ty Warren, are better. Vince Wilfork plays the nose in the 3-4, and he's better than any Bills defensive tackle.

The Bills have gotten surprising production from their linebackers. But could any of them start over the Pats' four guys -- Rosevelt Colvin, Adalius Thomas, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel? Angelo Crowell has been a consistent force, but Vrabel has had a better year at strong-side linebacker.

I gave one Bills defensive player a checkmark over his Pats counterpart: Strong safety Donte Whitner. And when Rodney Harrison reads it, he'll probably rip someone's head off. Whitner might object, too, because he seems to be relishing the underdog's role.

"Nobody gives us a chance," Whitner said. "We like that, though. We don't want people saying maybe Buffalo can upset New England. We want them to say, 'Yeah, they're going to blow Buffalo out.' "

So bring on the Pats. The Bills will smile and step into the fire, joyful at the opportunity to even play a game this big. They might be over their heads. The Pats could blow them out. But if we've learned any thing this year, it's that no one can keep these guys down.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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