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Night billing indicates progress

I'm not one for conspiracy theories, but someone in the NFL must have it in for Ralph Wilson. How else can you explain the fact that New England will face the Bills after a bye week for the fourth consecutive year?

Bill Belichick doesn't need to spy on the Bills. Thanks to the league schedule-makers, he spends more time preparing for Buffalo than any other team. Give him two weeks and he might even figure out what the Bills' defense has been doing lately to confound the opposition.

And as if two weeks wasn't enough time, the NFL just gave Belichick and the Patriots an extra seven hours. On Monday, the league announced that it would shift the Bills' Nov. 18 home game against the Pats to nighttime under its flexible scheduling plan.

No doubt, the move was made to give the Pats maximum national TV exposure while they're still unbeaten and looking to run the table. It'll certainly attract more viewers than the originally scheduled Sunday night matchup: Chicago at Seattle.

But it's also an acknowledgment that the Bills are a team on the rise. They've won three straight since their last-second loss to Dallas here a month ago and, if they win at Miami, they'll be on a four-game streak when they take on the Pats in two weeks.

As Dick Jauron said, it was a wild first half. The Bills have made big strides in the past month, though a lot of positive developments have been overshadowed by the raging quarterback controversy. Here are a few that stick out:

*The offensive line: Maybe it's not all you'd expect after a $75 million upgrade, but the line has been better. In pass protection, they've been much better. As J.P. Losman joked after Sunday's game, they did a nice job protecting Trent Edwards. And they thoroughly dominated the Bengals. The left side (Jason Peters, Derrick Dockery) has been a disappointment in run blocking, but they had their best game of the year Sunday.

*John McCargo: Every game, he makes at least one play that reminds you why the Bills traded up to get him with the 26th overall pick in the 2006 draft. McCargo is an ideal "three" defensive tackle -- the penetrator -- in Jauron's scheme. It's no coincidence that the run defense has come on as he continues to improve. Marv Levy's first draft was regarded as a success, but if McCargo keeps coming on, it'll look even better.

*Marshawn Lynch: He's going to be a star. It's almost impossible for one guy to bring him down. He's on pace for 1,380 yards and is just hitting his stride. Lynch is a smart, humble kid. After the Bengals game, he asked Thurman Thomas to come over and watch Monday Night Football so he could pick his brain and find out what it takes to be a Hall of Fame running back.

*The AFC is slipping: The best two teams in the league (the Pats and Colts) are atop the conference. But after that, it's an uninspired muddle. Last year's other four playoff teams (Jets, Ravens, Chiefs and Chargers) are a combined 13-19. Denver got blown out in Detroit. Jacksonville has quarterback issues and gave up 41 points at New Orleans. Who would have guessed that the Bills' Dec. 16 game at Cleveland might have playoff implications for both teams?

*The secondary: It's no shock that a team coached by former defensive backs (Jauron and Perry Fewell) would have a young secondary playing beyond its years. George Wilson, a converted wideout, has been solid at safety. Jabari Greer, a backup entering the season, has thrived as a starter. Terrence McGee is doing some of the things we used to see from Nate Clements. Donte Whitner has emerged as a physical force and a vocal leader. When the Pats come to town, you can bet they'll be eager to atone for their collapse at the end of the Cowboys game.

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