SERIES: 96th regular-season meeting. Patriots lead 54-40-1. New England has won nine consecutive games in the series and Buffalo has never won at Gillette Stadium. The Bills' last win in Foxboro, Mass., was 16-13 on Nov. 15, 2000, when Steve Christie kicked a 32-yard field in overtime.
PREDICTION: Patriots 24-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Bills will again be without WR Josh Reed, who is the team's best downfield blocker and best option to divert attention from big-play WR Lee Evans. QB Trent Edwards has one touchdown pass, three interceptions, two lost fumbles, taken a safety and been sacked seven times the past two weeks. He'll have to make better decisions against a third consecutive 3-4 defense. Offensive coordinator Turk Schonert can help by making a more concerted effort to get RB Marshawn Lynch producing. ... QB Matt Cassel is playing with more confidence and this shapes up as a good situation for the Patriots to expand the passing game. The Bills are without SS Donte Whitner and top pass-rusher DE Aaron Schobel. Buffalo is stronger against the run, where it allows just 98.9 yards per game. The Patriots are thin at running back, but veteran Kevin Faulk and rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis are providing just enough help on the ground.
KEY INJURIES: Bills: Reed (ankle/Achilles), Schobel (foot) and Whitner (shoulder) are out; OLB Kawika Mitchell (ankle) hopes to play. Patriots: RB LaMont Jordan (calf) has a chance to play; RB Sammy Morris (knee) is likely out; CB Terrence Wheatley (wrist) is uncertain.
FAST FACTS: Edwards has completed at least 60 percent of his passes in all eight games. ... Patriots WR Wes Welker joined former Jaguars WR Jimmy Smith as the only players with at least six receptions in each of their team's first eight games of a season.
--RB Marshawn Lynch is averaging 3.6 yards per carry and hasn't topped 100 yards in a single game. He does have a career-best 27 receptions, including a 42-yard play against the Jets last week. This week's opponent, the New England Patriots, will be keying on passes to Lynch with a strong linebacker corps.
--OG Brad Butler, nursing a sprained knee, is working his way back into shape and could play Sunday at New England. He's likely a game-time decision.
--DE Aaron Schobel did not practice again Thursday, raising concerns he will miss the remainder of the year with a serious foot injury. He visited with a specialist and will continue his rehab. Published reports have him missing at least four more weeks but that he won't need season-ending surgery.
--C Duke Preston has officially replaced Melvin Fowler as starting center. Preston played poorly against New York Jets' nose tackle Kris Jenkins last week and faces New England's equally tough Vince Wilfork this Sunday.
--LB Kawika Mitchell, who sat out Wednesday's practice with an ankle injury, returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday but should be fine for Sunday's game at New England.
-- RB LaMont Jordan appears to have suffered a setback in his recovery from a calf injury after missing Thursday's practice. He was listed as having "limited participation" on Wednesday, but did not practice at all the following day.
-- The news is much better for WR Randy Moss, who practiced Thursday after participating briefly on Wednesday due to a foot injury. Moss should be fine for Sunday's game.
-- RB Sammy Morris made a brief appearance in the locker room, but did not stop to speak with reporters as he continues to recover from a knee injury. He also missed Thursday's practice and will likely miss Sunday's game.
-- CB Lewis Sanders continues to suffer from a hamstring injury and missed his second consecutive practice Thursday. He is in danger of missing his third consecutive game.
-- CB Terrence Wheatley, who walked through the locker room with his left hand/wrist wrapped tightly and hidden in his jacket pocket, missed hisanother practice Friday and will miss Sunday's game.
The Bills had high hopes for James Hardy when they drafted the 6-foot-5 wide receiver from Indiana in the second round of last April's NFL Draft. But halfway through his rookie season, Hardy has just seven catches for 66 yards and a touchdown.
"It's nowhere near where I expected," Hardy said.
With veteran Josh Reed out indefinitely with an ankle/Achilles' injury, Hardy will start his third game overall on Sunday at one of the toughest places to play in the league, New England's Gillette Stadium. The Bills (5-3) and Patriots (5-3) are tied for first place in the AFC East and Buffalo desperately needs to win or it will fall to 0-3 in the division.
Hardy expected the speed of professional football to be faster and cornerbacks to be tougher. But he also expected that he'd have more than seven catches at this stage.
"Each play is different," he said. "But at the same time, this past week, they (the Jets) had their number two corner against Lee (Evans) with Cover-2 over the top and they had their best corner on me as far as Cover-2 over the top as well. They're really just dropping back in zone and making us beat them with the running game. We just have to open it up a lot more."
That's one problem. The Bills, averaging 93.8 yards rushing, haven't run well against defenses even when they've dropped seven and eight men into coverage.
"All I can do is to continue to work on what I do," Hardy said. "The outside world is always looking at stats but as far as the organization, everyone that's involved in the National Football League, we watch film to see what guys do. And sometimes guys and stats don't show. But at the same time we have to continue to work. We lost a game and everybody has to come in and do what we need to do to get a victory this week."
Testy offensive coordinator Turk Schonert isn't down on Hardy. He said the rookie's lack of better numbers is a result of total offensive malfunction, nothing in particular that Hardy has done wrong, although he has had games where he has dropped balls and run poor routes.
One problem is protection. Trent Edwards has been sacked seven times the past two games.
"We had Hardy (open) twice deep (against the Jets) and didn't get the ball off, we got pressured," Schonert said. "We take shots, we call them, but they might not get thrown because we don't protect it long enough and that is what happened.
"The first play of the game Hardy beat his guy, it was a double move on a safety and we had him, but we had to dump it off to Marshawn (Lynch). We had another one in the corner of the end zone that we had to dump off to Corey (McIntyre) because we got pressure. People don't see that. They look at numbers and think, 'They don't throw the ball downfield. They don't do this. They don't do that.' If you sat there and watched that game and understood football you would know what I am talking about. We could go through it and you guys would go, 'Wow, you guys had a lot of things going for you that didn't materialize.'
"I know everyone was saying James didn't catch any balls, but he beat his guy. He had a couple mental errors, but he beat his guy, but he didn't get the ball. That's just sometimes how the game goes."
As he lined up at wide receiver in the most unorthodox of positions Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, Matt Cassel jokingly lobbied for the ball on a Wildcat play ripped directly from Miami's playbook.
"Throw me the ball!" Cassel said with a smile Thursday. "I was waving my hand. I thought (Kevin Faulk) was going to give me the rock."
With the way things have gone for Cassel, would anyone be surprised if he started catching touchdown passes, too? The New England Patriots lost the game, but left feeling even better about their quarterback situation following another strong game from Cassel.
For the first time all season, Cassel avoided getting sacked and completed 25 of 34 passes for 204 yards. He threw one interception, though that came on a fourth-and-15 desperation heave in the fourth quarter as he got drilled by Raheem Brock.
The important thing is that for the third week in a row Cassel showed poise in the pocket and emerged as perhaps the quarterback with the least amount of problems within the division as the race begins to heat up. Who'd have dreamed up that scenario in Week 2?
"I am happy to see that we are having some production on offense," Cassel said. "I think that we have a lot of work to do. I do think that we are growing as an offense and I think the guys are stepping up and making some pretty big plays. We have to continue to do that if we are going to be successful in these next eight games."
"They are doing a great job," Cassel said. "They continue to push themselves each and every week. They did a great job last week and hopefully we can maintain that throughout the rest of the year."
Things could get better this weekend against Buffalo as the Bills will be playing without star defensive end Aaron Schobel, who has given left tackle Matt Light problems in the past. They'll also be without safety Donte Whitner.
"(The Bills) are a very good team," Cassel said. "They play well on defense and they run around and give you a lot of different looks. Offensively, they are playing well. They have a lot of great skill players. They have some good running backs. We have our work cut out for us. We have to have a good week of practice and be ready to go come Sunday."
Regardless of who's playing, Cassel recognizes this is the toughest stretch of the season with consecutive games against Buffalo, the Jets and Miami.
"We are in a tight race and we are going to take it one game at a time," Cassel said. "This one is a big one this week. If we can hopefully go out there and put a good performance and a get win that will set the tone."
Hot Topic: What has happen to Moss?