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A STEP BACKWARD

The Big Picture: So much for that playoff push. The Bills came crashing back to reality Sunday night in a humiliating 29-6 loss to the Patriots. The defending Super Bowl champions won their 16th straight game in Gillette Stadium and extended their record to 8-1, tops in the AFC East. The Bills fell to 3-6. Drew Bledsoe, brutal again away from home, dropped to 1-5 against his former team. Tom Brady is now 7-1 against Buffalo.

Player of the Game: Corey Dillon. Dillon was the clear-cut winner in the battle of running backs, rushing for 151 yards on 26 carries. Dillon had 89 yards in the first half alone.

Play of the Game: Tedy Bruschi, the Pats' vastly underrated linebacker, picked off an ill-advised Bledsoe pass and returned it 29 yards to set up the touchdown that gave New England a 20-0 lead and put the game out of reach.

Game Balls: Dillon, Brady, Bruschi, Ty Warren, David Givens . . . heck, why not give a pigskin to every one of the Pats, who responded to the Sunday night national spotlight with a typically brilliant effort.

Zebra Report: Has there ever been an earlier challenge? On the opening kickoff, Buffalo's Terrence McGee caught the ball inside the 1-yard line and his momentum carried him into the end zone. The officials initially ruled that McGee had fielded the ball outside the end zone, which would have forced the Bills to start from their own 1-yard line. But Mike Mularkey threw the red flag and the replay showed McGee's second foot had come down in the end zone. Thus, the call was changed to a touchback and the Bills started from the 20.

Sox Salute: The Patriots honored the World Series champion Red Sox in an emotional ceremony before the game. Johnny Damon and Curt Schilling, two of the most popular Red Sox, represented the team. Damon came sprinting out of the tunnel and onto the Gillette Stadium turf. Schilling, who recently had ankle surgery, was driven part way in a golf cart, then got out and hobbled the rest of the way on crutches -- wearing a No. 12 Brady jersey.

It's a Given: Pats wide receiver David Givens had three catches in the first half, and all three went for first downs. At that point, Givens had 40 catches for the year and 39 had been for first downs. He came into the night with a 17.4-yard average per catch, tops in the NFL among receivers with 25 or more catches.

First Blood: The Patriots scored first for the 17th straight game, a remarkable streak that dates to last Nov. 23 in Houston. They have scored first in 14 straight regular-season games, one short of the NFL record held by the 1973 Dolphins.

Coming Attractions: The Bills return home to Ralph Wilson Stadium next Sunday against the St. Louis Rams.

GRADING THE BILLS

Running game

(F): Willis did not have anywhere to run. Pats had no fear of Bills' pass game and ganged up on No. 21. Willis gained 37 on 2.6 a carry.

Passing game

(F): Sad. Drew overthrew first INT, telegraphed second and third INTs. Troy Brown pickoff was coup de grace.

Run defense

(F) Bills let Dillon break around the edge. The guy is an elite back. Sam Adams had a good game. Bills forced FGs in red zone.

Pass defense

(F): Reese benched after 47-yard pass. Baker fell down on 1st TD. McGee was OK. Need Vincent to play center field.

Special teams

(A): Freddie Smith showed burst on punt return for TD. Moorman boomed punts. KO coverage unit had an easy night.

Coaching

(F): Offense had no solution for Pats' dominant defense. Attack was as bad as in last year's shutout loss. Beyond ugly.

GRADING THE PATRIOTS

Running game

(A): Corey Dillon makes Pats' attack almost impossible to shut down. He gained 151 yards and averaged 5.8 a carry.

Passing game

(A): Brady is tough. Blitz him and he burns you. Sit back and he picks you apart. Givens on pace for 1,300-yard year.

Run defense

(A): Pats were determined not to let McGahee beat them wide. He got some yards outside but not much. Harrison helped force run.

Pass defense

(A): Pats defenders own Bills. Bruschi read Drew's eyes on INT. Front seven got enough push to make Drew antsy in pocket.

Special teams

(C): Pats made crusade out of stopping McGee and did decent job. But got burned on punt return. Vinatieri is cash money.

Coaching

(A): Coaches have done great job covering up for inexperienced corners two straight weeks. The beat goes on and on and on.