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WINFIELD FEELS HE'S TURNED CORNER ON ROOKIE YEAR

By National Football League standards, Antoine Winfield is still a rookie.

But by Winfield's standards, the rookie thing is merely a footnote on the roster.

"We're in the 15th week and I've played in every game," he said. "You know what, it feels like I'm a veteran."

The Buffalo Bills will need Winfield to have more than a feeling heading into Sunday's game at New England. The rookie cornerback will take over for starter Ken Irvin, who tore a ligament in his left foot and will miss the rest of the regular season.

It will be Winfield's first pro start and the former Ohio State standout is oozing with confidence.

"I don't think it will be a problem," Winfield said. "That's the reason why they picked me in the first round -- so I could play."

The Bills made Winfield their first selection, 23rd overall, in the NFL draft last April after he earned the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's outstanding defensive back. Dwight Adams, Buffalo's director of player personnel and chief college scout, said at the time that Winfield "plays like his hair is on fire."

Colorful, and Winfield admits it's probably accurate.

"I run out there and try to make something happen," said the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Winfield. "I do whatever I can."

He has already made things happen for the Bills, playing a significant role in their much-improved third-down defense (opponents' conversion rate is down from 38.6 last year to 31.8) and contributing on special teams. He's racked up 35 total tackles on defense while adding 24 tackles on punts and kickoff coverage.

And though he may feel like a veteran after 15 weeks of football, Winfield understands the ball will be coming his way as opposing quarterbacks try to pick on him. It happened this past weekend when Arizona Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer threw to Winfield's side of the field the minute the rookie was in the game.

"Thomas Smith was on the right side and he's a great corner," Winfield said. "With me coming in, I definitely knew the first play would be toward me. I was expecting it."

Winfield will need to be expecting similar treatment during the final two weeks of the regular season as the Bills make their final push for a playoff spot with a road game at New England and a home finale against the potent Indianapolis offense.

Buffalo head coach Wade Phillips thinks his rookie is ready for the starting job.

"We have complete confidence in him," Phillips said. "He went in the (Arizona) game and played well. So, I think he's doing a good job. We're a lot stronger (at cornerback) than we were last year."

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