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PATS ON GUARD AGAINST TAKING BILLS LIGHTLY

Here's something that hasn't happened for quite some time: An opponent is making a concerted effort not to be overconfident against the Buffalo Bills.

That's right. New England Patriots coach Pete Carroll is worried his players might take the Bills -- whom oddsmakers have as nine-point underdogs -- too lightly for today's game in Foxboro Stadium.

"I think people had a feeling this would be a down year for Buffalo because Jim Kelly was gone," said Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, whose team is the defending AFC champion and has beaten the Bills in four of their last five meetings. "But when Pete addressed us this week, he made it very clear that's not the case.

"Todd (Collins) is playing excellent football and there's no reason to approach the Bills any different."

True, the Bills, who have not won here since 1994, are in a state of transition. True, they have been hit hard by injuries, losing cornerback Jeff Burris (hamstring), defensive end Jim Jeffcoat (knee), fullback Tim Tindale (knee), and special-teams ace Steve Tasker (hamstring). And, true, their best player, defensive end Bruce Smith, is fighting through chronic knee soreness that could result in surgery before the season is over.

But the Bills experienced something of a turnaround with last week's 22-13 victory over Detroit. They gained confidence that they had sorely lacked through most of their first four games. They also are inspired by the chance to improve their record to 4-2 and claim a piece of first place in the AFC East.

"I'm happy where we're at but we're not where we should be," Collins said. "Most importantly, we're making progress."

If anything, it is the Bills who could become a tad overconfident, having watched the Patriots suffer a humiliating, 34-13 loss in Denver last Monday night. The Pats are easily the NFL's sloppiest 4-1 team, committing 41 penalties for 354 yards.

Nevertheless, they managed to outscore their first four opponents, 130-40. They have the fourth-ranked offense and third-ranked passing game in the NFL. And they have the league's No. 3 defense.

"They've got all kinds of weapons and they use them all and they use them well," Bills linebacker Chris Spielman said. "But we go in with confidence that we can play and with confidence that we can win the ballgame.

"If we don't think that way, then don't go there."

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