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The first snowfall of the season arrived late Friday night, draping a 6-inch, white blanket over southeast New England. The weather seemed like a declaration, an announcement that we're moving into the second half of the NFL season, when brutal conditions often demand a simpler, more physical style of play.

The coastal snowstorm departed the area by Saturday afternoon. So snow should not be a factor for tonight's game between the Bills and Patriots in Gillette Stadium. It is expected to be cold and blustery, though -- classic late fall conditions for the AFC East, at least in the three-quarters of the division residing north of Florida.

In Buffalo, of course, the harsh weather showed up in October. The Bills played three straight games in sinister winds in Ralph Wilson Stadium. They won all three, generating a fresh sense of momentum and a gathering belief that, after an 0-4 start, they might actually make something of this season.

"They're improving rapidly," said Ted Johnson, the Pats' 10th-year linebacker. "Their team is picking up steam. When you win two games in a row, there's momentum. Their whole offense looks very determined. They're just a very aggressive, physical mentality. They have a chip on their shoulder and it shows in the film."

There's nothing wrong with having a chip on your shoulder, but it's sitting precariously today. The Bills are in against the big boys now.

The Patriots (7-1) have not lost at home since the 2002 season. They are 29-4 after Nov. 1 since Tom Brady became the quarterback. They are home for the first time in three weeks and coming off a win at St. Louis that coach Bill Belichick called "as complete a team victory as I've ever been around."

So this could be a huge turning point. If the Bills really are a playoff contender, this is when they prove it. The last month means nothing if they lay another road egg. They need to stay true to their winning blueprint -- run the ball and play tough, opportunistic defense. They can validate themselves as a coming team, even in defeat, if they compete with the defending champions for 60 minutes. A lot of people in New England believe the Bills match up well. They recognize that it's a different team with Willis McGahee as the featured back.

"Now that we're at the halfway point, you can see what Buffalo is all about," Belichick said. "Sometimes it takes a few weeks to get things where you want them to be.

"They've certainly gotten their game where they want it to be, as far as the running game. That sets up their play-action. No third-and-longs, no sacks, no interceptions -- that's the formula for winning in any time."

But it's a formula that has consistently blown up in the Bills' faces on the road. They have lost 13 of their last 15 road games, averaging 9.5 points in the 13 losses.

It's a lot cheerier if you think of this as the dawning of the McGahee era. Think of it this way: The Bills are 3-0 with McGahee as the starting tailback. They're 0-0 on the road. See, isn't that a lot better than all those gruesome Bledsoe road stats?

The Bills have a chance if they pound McGahee. The Pats can be run on. They're not as strong without Ted Washington. Five opponents have rushed for 100 yards. Indianapolis and Pittsburgh had 200.

Yes, they have to take some chances against the Pats' secondary, which is without its starting corners. But they have to resist the temptation to throw the ball around, the way the Rams did. Bledsoe isn't going to beat a Belichick defense with his arm, even in good weather. The record is pretty clear on that.

Mike Mularkey will be over his head if he tries to outfinesse the best coaching staff in the NFL. This isn't the week to call reverses for your reserve defensive backs, or to run Bledsoe around end on fourth down. It should be Willis right, Willis left, Willis up the middle. Where there's a Willis, there's a way.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that the Pats are excited about their new running back, too. It's amazing to think they won two Super Bowls with Antowain Smith as the featured back. Corey Dillon is a different commodity, an elite runner who can get the tough yards but also bust one, as he did in Buffalo earlier this year. Like McGahee, Dillon has gained over 100 yards in three straight starts. He's rushed for 749 yards and 4.9 yards per carry. He missed the Pittsburgh game, the Pats' lone defeat.

So both running backs are unbeaten as starters this season. Something has to break. That puts the onus on the Bills' defense, which has yet to give up a 100-yard rusher this season. The defense never seems to play up to its reputation in big road games. If it wants to be taken seriously, it has to be the better run defense.

Run and stop the run. It's a simple game. That's the game the Bills wanted to play when Mularkey became the coach. They've begun to establish their identity over the last month. But the true character of a team is revealed away from home. Tonight, the football world will be looking to see if that identity is genuine, or just a mask.

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