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BILLS AIM TO FINISH WHAT THEY STARTED AGAINST PATS

Two weeks ago, the Buffalo Bills delivered a blow that left the New England Patriots reeling in the fight for a postseason berth.

Today, the Bills can land a knockout punch.

With a 6-5 record, the Patriots wouldn't mathematically be eliminated from the playoffs by a loss. But they would be awfully close.

At 7-4, the Bills, who share first place in the AFC East with Miami and the New York Jets, could better withstand a defeat. And a victory would be a major step forward in the Bills' quest for their first division championship since 1995.

Perhaps the most intriguing subplot is the homecoming of Bills quarterback Doug Flutie, who grew up in nearby Natick, Mass., and is a former Patriot and Boston College star. He is still wildly popular in these parts, and expects a "receptive reaction" from the crowd.

"But it won't carry over into the game," said Flutie, whose son, Doug Jr., turns 7 today. "It'll be a situation where, beyond the first series or two, they'll want to win."

It won't be easy. The Patriots, whose 13-10 loss to the Bills in Orchard Park 14 days ago could have been more lopsided, will likely be without starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who suffered a double fracture of the index finger of his throwing hand during New England's dramatic win over Miami last Monday night. Although the Pats insist Bledsoe's status is a game-time decision, all indications are that Scott Zolak, who hasn't started since '95, will assume the No. 1 role.

The last time the teams met, the Bills rushed for 213 yards. Their ground game faces a tougher challenge today, considering the game is on grass -- on which the Bills tend to play poorly -- and Patriots run-stuffing defensive tackle Henry Thomas is less bothered by a sore ankle than he was two weeks ago.

"We know it's going to be a tough game for us," Bills running back Antowain Smith said. "They still feel they're in a must-win situation, and we know they're going to come out and put up a challenge.

"But if we play ball the way we've been playing these last couple of weeks -- get our running game going, which will open up some more things in our passing game -- I think we'll have a chance to win."

Another homecoming involves Bills fullback Sam Gash, who signed with Buffalo as a free agent after six seasons with the Pats. He delivered several crushing blocks in the first game.

"For Sam, it was a personal issue the last time," New England linebacker Ted Johnson said. "I'd say we played to a draw in terms of the punishment we gave each other."

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