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PATRIOTS COULD HAVE HANDS FULL WITH BILLS

Overview
By all rights, this shouldn't be much of a game today.

The New England Patriots have considerably more offensive firepower than the Buffalo Bills. Their defense is at least equal to Buffalo's in strength, and it surpasses it in causing turnovers.

Playing in Foxboro Stadium . . . facing the Patriots six days after their humiliating Monday night loss in Denver . . . it has all of the makings of a blowout loss.

But there are a couple of things working in the Bills' favor. One, they are on a two-game winning streak. Two, after struggling through most of their first four games, they showed improvement in several areas and regained their confidence in last Sunday's win over Detroit.

The Patriots aren't nearly as bad as they looked in Denver, where they have a long history of melting down. They also aren't so good that the Bills couldn't at least be competitive with them . . . and maybe even come home with an upset win.

Of course, if first-year coach Pete Carroll is to rid himself of the imposing ghost of his predecessor, Bill Parcells, he cannot afford to have his team lose two games in a row.

When the Bills have the ball

The Bills had to be encouraged by the Patriots' defensive line being manhandled by Denver's offensive line and trampled by RB Terrell Davis. They can expect to have some success with the one-two RB punch of Thurman Thomas and Antowain Smith. But they must dominate on the ground to help take pressure off of QB Todd Collins, who will have his hands full dealing with crowd noise.

Through their first four games, the Patriots used aggressive blitzing to register 21 sacks. But against the Broncos, they became more passive -- out of respect for John Elway's ability to devour man-to-man coverage -- and sent five pass-rushers only twice. They will likely go back to their blitz-happy approach today, figuring they have a much better chance to get to Collins before he can hurt them.

DTs Henry Thomas and Mark Wheeler do not provide a great deal of size or strength. But Thomas uses his quickness to get good penetration. Wheeler is an effective run-stopper who is seldom overpowered by OGs.

WLB Chris Slade makes most of his contribution as a nickel pass-rush specialist. He has excellent speed and makes a lot of plays on backside pursuit. SLB Todd Collins is a play-maker and is good in pass-coverage.

MLB Ted Johnson, who often blitzes up the middle, is very athletic and takes good angles to the ball-carrier.

For the fourth time in five games, the Patriots are expected to be without their best pass-rusher, DE Willie McGinest, who is still bothered by a sore knee. Mike Jones, McGinest's replacement the last two games, hasn't even been marginally effective.

Aggressive LCB Ty Law is the most talented member of the Patriots' secondary. He enjoys playing bump-and-run coverage, is strong against the run, and has good ball skills.

Until the Denver game -- when he drew two pass interference penalties, was called for holding in the end zone, and gave up a 47-yard completion -- RCB Jimmy Hitchcock was having an outstanding year. He is solid in man-to-man coverage, which is what the Patriots play most of the time, and offers good run support.

FS Willie (Big Play) Clay is, indeed, a play-maker with great anticipation. SS Lawyer Milloy plays the run well and can smother TEs.

But the Bills must test the Pats with more than just WR Andre Reed.

When the Pats have the ball

Opponents who manage to shut down one of the Patriots' two big offensive guns -- QB Drew Bledsoe or RB Curtis Martin -- are usually burned by the other.

Bledsoe is still a bit streaky. He can occasionally dominate with his big-time arm and quick release. But he will also force throws into traffic, lock onto primary receivers, and become confused by a variety of coverages. He also doesn't always have a great feel for the pass rush. But one way the coaches have helped Bledsoe is to have him roll away from pressure, settle in, and then throw.

Martin is a tough runner who routinely breaks multiple tackles and is shifty in the open field. He has excellent change-of-direction ability, great vision, and will often turn what looks to be a short gain into a long run.

But he hasn't been getting a whole lot of help from his offensive line, despite the fact it was restructured -- with the addition of mammoth RT Zefross Moss and Max Lane's move from RT to LG -- to enhance the running game. Moss and Lane do a good job in pass-protection, but neither gets much push on run plays.

LT Bruce Armstrong remains one of the best technical blockers in the league, although he is susceptible to inside moves. RG Todd Rucci doesn't have much athletic ability, but is a brawler/mauler at the point of attack.

The weakest link up front is C Dave Wohlabaugh, who has regressed since his rookie season in 1995. He doesn't have the strength to tangle with someone lined up in front of him, so he should have big problems against dominating NT Ted Washington.

The best development for New England's blockers is that DE Bruce Smith has chronic knee problems, and needs to be spelled more often.

TE Ben Coates continues to be Bledsoe's most dangerous target. He stretches defenses, makes tough catches in traffic, and can motor in the open field. WR Terry Glenn is slowed by an ankle injury that doesn't allow him to push off as hard as he needs to. WR Shawn Jefferson has been plagued by a persistent case of the dropsies.

But FB Keith Byars can be a reliable receiver and runs routes well enough to get open deep.

Audibles

Bills have a six-game losing streak on grass (their last grass victory was in Cleveland on Oct. 2, 1995), which is the surface in Foxboro Stadium. . . . In past two seasons, when Pats score 23 points or more, they are 15-0; when they score less than 23, they are 0-6.

Outlook

Bills should make a game of it, but ultimately fall short in 27-21 loss.

Keys To The Contest

For the Bills:

Thomas, Smith take charge on ground.

Collins beats blitz for big plays.

Capitalize on Patriots' soft run-blocking.

Force Bledsoe into mistakes.

For the Patriots:

Aggressive blitzing overwhelms Collins.

Wheeler, Johnson shut down the run.

Martin shreds defense for big day.

Bledsoe avoids pressure with rollouts.