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WITH PLAYOFF BERTH AT STAKE, BILLS CAN'T AFFORD ANOTHER FOXBORO FLOP

The Buffalo Bills aim to avoid a sequel of last year's Nightmare in Foxboro when they meet the New England Patriots today.

The Bills and their fans still have vivid memories of last November's visit to New England, when bad officiating cost them an infamous, 25-21 decision. That loss wound up costing the Bills a home playoff game.

A loss today could be even more damaging. It could cost them a playoff berth.

The Bills currently hold the fifth seed in the six-team AFC playoff race. They can clinch a spot in the post-season with a win at New England and a loss by either Seattle or Miami. The Seahawks play host to Kansas City at 4 p.m. Miami plays host to the New York Jets Monday night.

But if the Bills lose, they could fall to seventh in the AFC -- if both Seattle and Miami win.

Given the fact the Bills finish the season next week against 12-2 Indianapolis, they can't afford to slip.

The Bills haven't forgotten about last year's Foxboro debacle, but making the playoffs obviously is far greater motivation for them today than avenging last year's loss.

"Something like that will bug you forever because it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said linebacker Gabe Northern. "Probably in the history of football, from grade school on up, there's never been a pass interference call on a Hail Mary. But we don't even want the referees to come into play. We want to go out there from start to finish and win the game."

The Bills have lost four straight years in New England. However, this is the first time in that stretch that the Patriots have nothing to play for but pride. The Pats have lost five of their last six and are out of the playoffs.

"We should have won last year, but we do want to go back and show them that we can win there," Northern said. "They are already out of playoff contention, so we don't want them to spoil our hopes as far as the playoffs. We have to make even more of a conscious effort to go in and dominate the whole game. We have to take them out early."

A fast Buffalo start would be highly recommended, since it might demoralize the Pats. In addition, New England's offense is in chaos. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe remains in a miserable slump, with 16 interceptions in his last six games.

"We haven't played a game worth a crap in a month and a half," said Pats middle linebacker Ted Johnson.

The Bills' offense, however, can't count on a cakewalk.

New England's defense remains No. 9 in the NFL and has been helped by this month's return of Johnson, who did not play in the Bills' 17-7 win over the Pats a month ago.

Jonathan Linton, who rushed for 81 yards last week, probably will get most of the carries again this week due to Antowain Smith's turf toe. Smith will see how he feels at game time.

"Everybody's thinking like we have to win out to get to the playoffs," said fullback Sam Gash. "New England's a tough place to play, and they have a lot of talent. If we go in thinking they're down and we're gonna beat them, we'll get beat."

BILLS vs. Patriots
SITE: Foxboro Stadium
KICKOFF: 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 4. RADIO: 96.9 FM
WEATHER: Cloudy, 30 degrees
LATEST LINE: Buffalo (-2 1/2 )
COUNTDOWN TO KICKOFF: A special pullout section featuring Bills defensive back Thomas Smith, a Patriots story on what went wrong this season, Inside the NFL, The Scouting Report . . . Plus rosters, statistics, depth chart, and more. Page D5

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