Game Snapshot

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET GAMEDATE: 10/03/04 SURFACE: AstroPlay TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Bonnie Bernstein SERIES: 89th meeting. New England leads the series 47-40 with one tie. The 47 wins are the most by New England against any opponents and the Patriots have own 5 of the last 6 meetings dating back to 2000. The Patriots are 22-22-1 in Buffalo dating back to 1960 when both clubs were members of the AFL.

*2004 RANKINGS: Patriots: offense 5th (8th rush, 6th pass); defense 14th (23rd rush, 9th pass). Bills: offense 29th (29th rush, 26th pass); defense 4th (4th rush, 6th pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Bills need to play a near-perfect game to pull off the upset, and to do so they need to improve their red zone offense and produce touchdowns. With a poor offensive line and the Patriots likely to bring a variety of blitz packages, it's essential for Buffalo to be successful on the ground on early downs and keep QB Drew Bledsoe from being a standing target. The Patriots simply want to avoid big plays on defense and then keep the Bills off balance on offense. They will mix a spread look with sets featuring RB Cory Dillon. WR Deion Branch, QB Tom Brady's new favorite target, is not expected to play, but the strength of the Bills' defense is their ability to stop the run, so the Patriots will need to make some plays downfield.

FAST FACTS: Patriots: Can tie the NFL record for consecutive victories (18) with a win. ... Brady has nine touchdown passes in four starts against Buffalo. ... Have won six of the past seven meetings. ... Lead the series 47-40-1. Bills: Bledsoe has been sacked an average of 3.3 times in 34 games with Buffalo. ... Bledsoe is 1-3 against the Patriots since being traded from New England.

PREDICTION: Patriots 27-17

PERSONNEL NEWS

Patriots:

--S Rodney Harrison may have been the AFC Defensive Player of the Week following the Patriots' win over Arizona in which he notched seven tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a pass defenses, but the yellow flags have been flying in his direction. He has four penalties through two games, including one that drew a $7,500 fine for a late, out of bounds hit on Cardinals QB Josh McCown.

--S Eugene Wilson one-upped is partner in the secondary by earning AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors. In two September games, Wilson recorded 12 tackles, a pair of interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass defensed. The team forced five turnovers in two games and Wilson was involved in four of the five. His forced fumble against the Colts may have been a game-saver since it came on a play in which Edgerrin James was trying to squeeze across the goal line from the 1-yard line.

--TE Daniel Graham is off to a hot start to the season and his confidence appears to be at an all-time high. One theory regarding his improvement is that the selection and presence of Benjamin Watson, a 2004 first round pick, both pushed him and relieved some of the pressure to shoulder the tight end load. That's not to diminish the hard work Graham invested in the offseason, but he struggled catching the ball in each of his first two years and has been a force early in 2004. That theory will now be tested with Watson being placed on injured reserve.

--NT Vince Wilfork is adjusting well to the Patriots' defense while working in behind starter Keith Traylor on the nose and Ty Warren on the end. Injuries hit the defensive end position hard in training camp when Rodney Bailey and Dana Stubblefield went down, leaving only backup Jarvis Green and rookie Marquise Hill, who is not yet ready. Wilfork was asked to learn both positions in the 3-4, which may have extended his learning curve. "He has made a lot of progress in our system," defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "He came primarily from a penetrating defense we play more of a technique-oriented defense. He has learned the system and he understands what we need to do and how we need to do it. We are pleased with his progress."

--WR P.K. Sam might see his first NFL action this week in Buffalo if he can find a role on special teams. Sam was inactive the first two games but with Deion Branch doubtful and Benjamin Watson out, the Patriots are down a couple of receivers. Sam will likely play sparingly if at all in the game, but can come off the bench to provide the offense a bigger target. Sam was a 2004 fifth round pick who would likely have been taken higher next year if he remained at Florida State for another season. The Patriots have solid depth at wideout and kept him as the sixth guy. New England could go to the game with four receivers if they don't feel Sam can contribute in the kicking game. He has been told to be ready, but has not been told whether he will be active.

Bills:

--DE Aaron Schobel, Buffalo's top pass rusher last year with 11.5 who signed a rich contract extension before the season started, has no sacks and only one QB pressure through two games. The Bills need his presence felt against New England QB Tom Brady Sunday so they can limit the amount of blitzing they do against the crafty Brady.

--CB Terrence McGee, the team's nickel back who has seven tackles, 1 sack and 1 pass defense, is also having a strong year on special teams with seven tackles and a 22.8-yard average on four kickoff returns. An 88-yard return against Oakland was nullified by penalty.

--OG Chris Villarrial is hurting with an abdominal injury and is very questionable for Sunday's game against New England. He'll be replaced by Ross Tucker.

--WR Eric Moulds is tied for ninth in AFC scoring with 12 points, thanks to TD catches in his first two games. It's the first time in his career he's had two scores in his first two starts.

--TE Jason Peters, a 328-pound rookie from Arkansas, has been issued a new number (71) and will start working more as an offensive tackle, coach Mike Mularkey announced.



INSIDE THE CAMPS

Patriots:

Drew Bledsoe and his new head coach, Mike Mularkey, might have best summed up how the Patriots have won 17 straight games. Sure there have been dramatic comebacks and defensive dominance during the run. There have been offensive fireworks and goal line stands. But both Bledsoe and Mularkey cited an avoidance of mistakes as the No. 1 reason why New England wins so consistently.

"I have a very good idea of how they're doing it," Bledsoe said. "You watch across the league and there are so many games that are so close, and they can come down to just one or two plays every week. The thing that allows the Patriots to keep winning is that they don't make those mistakes that hurt themselves.

"Really, the talent across the league is fairly even," Bledsoe continued. "There are some teams that maybe have a little more talent, but you have to eliminate those pivotal plays in the game that can really swing the game one way or the other. The Patriots just don't make the negative plays and beat themselves. And then they have the talent to make the plays when they need to. Everybody has talent, but the Patriots just don't screw it up."

The truth is, though, that they have screwed it up at times, but they find a way to overcome the mistakes, which not all teams can do. Take last year's 38-34 win in Indianapolis as an example. You know the one famous for the goal line stand? The Patriots led that game 31-10 and allowed the Colts back in it with a series of mistakes that included three turnovers. But then with the game on the line, they made the goal line stand that staved off a miraculous Colts comeback.

They haven't all been that way, of course, but the theory that New England doesn't make mistakes is only lip service from an opponent paying respect to a team that has found a way to win more consistently than any other NFL club over the last year. It's probably fair to say that they make fewer mistakes than most teams.

"They don't make a lot of mistakes," Mularkey said. "I think they each have a role to play, and they're playing within the role. I don't think anybody is doing more than what is asked of them or doing anything less. You've got guys on that team pushing each other both mentally and physically. If one guy is not holding up his end of the deal, I think they're at a point veteran-wise that they feel they can address it without having the coaches have to do it. That, to me, is a big plus.

"They make it easier for us to get up there (in front of our team) and go, 'Look, if you do these couple of things every week, week in and week out, you have a chance to win a lot of football games.' That's what New England has done. Rarely do you see them beat themselves in any phase of the game regardless of who is in there."



Bills:

Coach Mike Mularkey is new to the AFC East Division but the New England Patriots and their resident genius leader Bill Belichick are no strangers to him.

As offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2001-03, Mularkey faced Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel twice, and lost both times - 24-17 in the January 2002 AFC championship game in Pittsburgh and 30-14 in the rematch in the 2002 regular-season opener in Foxboro, Mass.

The AFC title game was a near stalemate statistically, with the Steelers holding a 306-259 edge in yards. The big difference was the Patriots ability to make big plays - they had four takeaways and no giveaways and scored two touchdowns on special teams.

That error-free, big-play style has been New England's calling card in capturing two Super Bowl titles in the past three seasons and why the Patriots have won 17 games in a row can tie an NFL record with their 18th win Sunday against the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

"You can almost anticipate and be ready to adjust on the sideline because you're going to get something that you haven't prepared for," Mularkey said of facing Belichick. "That's been the history. Typically if they have success with it it's not going to stop. You don't know what it is, you can make some estimations of what they can do, but it's hard to put a finger on it until you get it. You may have a negative play at first, but we've already talked about being prepared on the sideline to talk about adjustments we're going to have to make."

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