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Jerry Sullivan: Hobbled, Kelvin Benjamin fights to have an impact

Jerry Sullivan

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — This is what Brandon Beane had in mind when he traded for Kelvin Benjamin on Halloween. The Bills were 5-2, a surprise playoff contender. After making a series of deals that diminished the roster, Beane wanted to show the guys in his locker room that he wasn't simply looking down the road. He was looking to the stretch run.

So here they are, in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt at 8-6 and facing the mighty Patriots on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium. Benjamin, who stood helplessly on the sidelines with a knee injury when Carolina made its Super Bowl run two years ago, has a chance to validate the deal and help his new team reach the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.

The problem is, Benjamin is hurt. He's suffering with a torn meniscus in his right knee, which he hurt initially while making a catch from Nathan Peterman early in the loss to the Chargers. He's a shell of the receiver who gained 1,000 yards as a rookie three years ago, the No. 1 wideout that the Bills believed could help Tyrod Taylor get the offense over the hump.

Benjamin is expected to tough it out. But if this game meant nothing, he would probably be sitting. After Sunday's win, he said he plans to have surgery on the knee after the season. He missed two games after hurting the knee in LA and left in the second half of the Colts win after aggravating the injury. He had two catches for 20 yards last week.

On Friday, Benjamin said he felt great, though he conceded that he's fighting through pain and discomfort. He said he'll likely get the procedure done as soon as the Bills are eliminated from contention. That won't be until after the finale at the soonest.

When the Bills traded for Benjamin, it was a signal from management that they were going for it. He admitted he feels the weight.

"Oh, definitely," Benjamin said Friday. "I know they brought me in to play a role on the team. I'm just trying to do that, trying to fulfill my role, be a great teammate, to get more comfortable with the organization and let the organization get more comfortable with me, let them know I'm not a quitter. I'm a fighter. I'm going to push."

"Most football players can tell you they push through a lot of injuries," he said. "I'm trying to do it for the team and for myself. We're right there, so close. I just want to contribute to that."

The Bills are desperate for a wideout to play at an elite level. That's why they got Benjamin. Even at 5-2, they had no one functioning like a No. 1, or a legitimate No. 2. They don't have a wideout among the top 140 in the NFL in receptions. Zay Jones and Matthews have 25 each. Running back LeSean McCoy has 52 grabs, tight end Charles Clay 39.

Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown has 101 catches for 1,533 yards this season. The seven wide receivers who have caught a ball for the Bills have a combined 99 receptions for 1,234 yards.

Even hobbled, Benjamin can make a difference in a marginal group. We went through this with Sammy Watkins, who suffered a variety of injuries and often played through hurt to help the team and show critics he could play through pain. When the production didn't measure up, he was left open to criticism.

"Yeah," Benjamin said with a laugh. "I know it's a league where we look at production and stuff. Sammy is in my draft class, one of the guys I still watch on film. It's tremendous what he's doing. A lot of people look at production, but at the same time, they probably won a lot of those games with Sammy just being out there. Defenses worry about him.

"At the end of the day, you could be a decoy and help other guys get open."

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The Bills didn't acquire him to be a decoy, but it's better than watching from the sideline. Benjamin went through that two years ago in Carolina. On the next-to-last practice of training camp, in a one-on-one drill, he tore the ACL in his left knee and missed his entire second season. Carolina reached the Super Bowl.

Benjamin is known as a carefree, childlike character, always smiling and engaging with teammates. That's one reason Beane and Sean McDermott felt he would fit into their locker room. He was an uplifting presence that year despite the injury, but he suffered inside.

"Oh, that was super tough!" he said. "You want to cheer for the guys, but at the same time you're mad, because you're not contributing, you're not helping."

Chances are, the Bills will have to wait for Benjamin to justify the trade and the $8 million option they picked up in the process. There's little chance they'd extend his contract without seeing him on the field for a full season.

Benjamin has a reputation as a big-game player. He caught the winning pass for Florida State in the 2014 national championship game. As a rookie, he caught two TD passes in Carolina's 31-17 loss to Seattle in a divisional round playoff.

But since then, the evidence isn't flattering for the 6-5, 240-pound Florida native. Until the Benjamin trade, the Panthers were averaging 18.5 points. They've put up 30.5 a game since. Newton had 10 TD passes and 10 interceptions at the time of the deal. He has 11 TDs and only 1 pick since Benjamin's departure.

Since the start of the 2015 season, the Panthers are 20-2 without Benjamin. They were 11-13 in the games he played. It might be pure coincidence, but when Panthers fans look at the facts, they can't miss him much.

Benjamin had a big TD catch in the snow against the Colts. Otherwise, he hasn't been much of a factor. When he caught that early pass from Peterman, it was the sort of play the Bills had in mind when they acquired him. Then he got hurt.

Sunday will be only third time Taylor and Benjamin have been on the field at the same time since the trade. Early this season, Benjamin had four catches for 104 yards in Carolina's 33-30 win at New England.

"That's certainly a consideration," McDermott said. "We're aware of that experience."

Whether Benjamin can repeat it in his current physical state is another matter. Pats coach Bill Belilchick will probably try to take LeSean McCoy out of the game, so there will be opportunities for wide receivers against the NFL's 29th-ranked pass defense. He has been told there's no risk of injuring his major ligaments.

"No, it's not a risk for my ACL or MCL," Benjamin said. "Those are pretty much good. You could nick it and aggravate it again, but that's football. The knee is the knee, you know what I'm saying? I got to live with what I got. But I'm prepared to go out there and play, and whatever happens, happens. Going to try to get this win."

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