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TAKEO GETS TKO'D Spikes' torn Achilles leaves gaping hole in Bills' defensive unit

Middle linebacker London Fletcher sat in his usual spot in the team meeting room Monday, only this time it wasn't the same. This time, Takeo Spikes wasn't sitting next to him.

Fletcher has gotten used to having Spikes around. It was a comfort for Fletcher to know he had No. 51 as his wingman.

But those days are over, at least for this season. The Buffalo Bills officially announced Monday what Fletcher and his teammates already knew: Spikes is done for the year with a torn right Achilles tendon.

As the Bills players began preparations for this week's game against the New Orleans Saints, they were still trying to come to grips with having to finish the year without their best defensive player and inspirational leader.

"If it was a game or two, then you're feeling a little bit different," Fletcher said. "But to not have him and we have 13 ball games left this year, it's something we're dealing with right now."

Spikes was to have surgery either Monday or today in Birmingham, Ala., according to his agent, Todd France.

Spikes flew to Birmingham Monday to meet with noted orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, who specializes in treating athletic injuries and has performed surgery on a number of professional athletes such as New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington (shoulder) and Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Jim Thome (elbow).

The Bills have experienced this before. They lost middle linebacker Sam Cowart to a torn Achilles tendon in the 2001 opener against the Saints.

Cowart, who now plays in Minnesota, was never the impact player he was before the injury. But Bills coach Mike Mularkey said the team doctors are hopeful Spikes, 28, will regain his Pro Bowl form.

"I'm not sure of the recovery rate as we speak, but I assume he's going to be (fine)," Mularkey said. "With him, I have a feeling he'll be back."

The Bills don't know how the injury occurred. The game tape doesn't provide a definitive answer, but Spikes was chasing Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick when he was hurt.

"It just looks like it just gave out on him," Mularkey said.

Maybe it was a matter of time. Spikes' right leg has been ailing and it may have been part of the reason he was held out of practice last Friday. The Bills said at the time that he was given the day off, though Mularkey indicated Monday that Spikes' lower calf had been bothering him.

Regardless, the Bills must find a way to go on without Spikes.

"It's a big blow for our defense," Fletcher said. "We've got some other guys that have got to take up the slack."

It will be hard, if not impossible, to replace what Spikes gave the Bills. He has been an elite player for most of his eight-year career, but finally achieved stardom in Buffalo, earning Pro Bowl invitations the last two seasons.

Spikes is a difference-maker on the field, using his speed, athleticism and range to make plays from sideline to sideline. Opposing teams had to account for his presence on every snap, and he gave the Bills' defense a lot of flexibility because he could line up anywhere on the field.

He played with exceptional strength and leverage against the run and was an explosive tackler. He's a disruptive force when blitzing off the edge or coming up the middle and was adept at dropping into pass coverage.

Spikes also was an emotional leader in the locker room, and gave the team a passionate speech at halftime Sunday.

"Very tough loss," Mularkey said. "It's hard to replace a player of his caliber."

Fletcher and strong safety Lawyer Milloy were among the players who visited Spikes' home after the game Sunday, and they said his spirits were good in spite of the current circumstances.

Losing a player like Spikes can be a setback, but the Bills can't let it affect their focus on the rest of this season.

"We still will play football come Sunday," Fletcher said. "Every year on every team in the National Football league somebody has season-ending injuries. We're not unique. That's the nature of the business. Those teams that win the Super Bowl have had those types of deals. You come out, you get ready to practice and you get ready to work. That's how I approach it."


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