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EARLY DEFICIT COULD BE ALL IT TAKES TO DEFLATE PATS

Overview

Which Patriots team is going to show up today in Foxboro?

Will it be the team that played hard in beating Dallas three weeks ago and went down to the wire in Indianapolis two weeks ago? Or will it be the team that packed it in against lowly Philadelphia last week?

The Pats have nothing to play for but pride against the Bills today. Coach Pete Carroll is very likely a goner when the season is over. He appealed this week to his team's desire to win the last two and finish with a winning record. It's hard to see that motivating the Pats, who are bummed out over missing the playoffs for the first time since '95.

Ted Johnson, the Pats' warrior middle linebacker, said this about today's game: "We work too hard to just lay down. I've never quit and I don't intend to this week."

But asked how his teammates would respond, he said, "I wish I had an answer."

Quarterback Drew Bledsoe was saying the right things.

"I think you'll see a great deal of effort and we'll win (the last two games), not because we're in contention, but because we're proud and we want to win," he said.

But Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy had his doubts this week as he considered his possible departure from the Pats via free agency.

"I'm tired of walking around here like a zombie," said Milloy.

If the Bills can start fast and get an early lead, look for the Patriots to make like zombies.

When the Bills have the ball

Last week in Arizona, the passing game opened up the run for the Bills. Joe Pendry might be tempted to try that approach again this week, since New England is missing its best cornerback, Ty Law. Steve Israel and inconsistent Tebucky Jones will start at corner. Kato Serwanga, an undrafted free agent born in Uganda, is the nickel back.

The Bills' receivers, however, are banged up. And they shouldn't have to get too fancy anyway. It's hard to see the Patriots lighting it up against the Bills' defense. Pendry should have the luxury of playing conservative and pounding out a workmanlike victory -- just like a month ago when these two teams met.

The Pats' troubles are not attributable to their defense. It has been tough all year. Johnson, the middle linebacker, returned from a torn bicep muscle three games ago and has been strong. He did not play in Buffalo. The Bills had just 11 yards on 12 carries at halftime a month ago, but Jonathan Linton finished with 67 yards. Look for Linton to get the bulk of the work today. The Pats have yielded rushing yards off right tackle, especially when Chris Slade blitzes. But since Johnson returned, the Pats have not had to bring up Milloy, their strong safety, very much to support the run.

Willie McGinest is having a good season but didn't get a sack on John Fina in the first meeting. That will be a good matchup. Slade has been unimpressive the second half of the season. Tedy Bruschi is a decent coverage linebacker on passing downs.

When the Pats have the ball

The Patriots offense is stuck in exactly the same rut it was in four weeks ago when it visited Orchard Park.

New England's quarterback is playing more like Drew Carey than Drew Bledsoe. The first half of the season he threw 13 TD passes, four INTs and had a 60 percent completion rate. The past six games he has five TDs, 16 INTs and a 52 percent completion rate.

The Patriots' lack of a running game has killed Bledsoe. New England ranks 26th in rushing. So teams keep getting Drew in obvious passing situations and then blitzing him like crazy. As a result, he keeps throwing off his heels and unloading in the face of pressure. Lately, even when he doesn't get pressure, he thinks he senses it and he chucks the ball out of the pocket. Ugly.

The Bills did not blitz Bledsoe much a month ago. Didn't need to. Their four- and five-man rushes kept collapsing the pocket. That will be essential again today. If the Bills aren't getting pressure early, then they should blitz. Get somebody in Drew's face and he will make a bad play. That strategy is complemented by press coverage at the line of scrimmage by the cornerbacks, which fouls up the timing of the Pats' intermediate pass routes. The Bills did that beautifully a month ago. Thomas Smith is good at it. We'll see how well Antoine Winfield does at chucking his man at the line.

Tight end Ben Coates is having a miserable year. He has had more than two catches in just two of the past 11 games. He doesn't seem to run well enough to get open like he used to. The Bills locked him up a month ago. Meanwhile, the Bills' safeties must be on their toes. The Pats have dangerous speed.

Audibles

New England is last in the AFC in red zone offense, scoring TDs on only 36 percent of its trips inside the 20. . . . This will be New England's 60th straight sellout. . . . Flutie is 10-1 as a starter in Foxboro, counting college games.

Outlook

The Bills need to win and get help from the Chiefs today or the Jets Monday night. If Buffalo goes into next week needing a win over Indy to make the playoffs, it will be a scary situation. Bills win, 24-17.

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