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Pats treat Bledsoe kindly in his return

Posted: Friday, November 01, 2002

This is supposed to be a grudge game: Drew Bledsoe and the Buffalo Bills against New England, which traded him away after he lost his job to Tom Brady last season.

But it really isn't.

In fact, with the Patriots having lost four straight after starting their post-Super Bowl season with three wins, there are plenty of people in New England who'd like to have Bledsoe back. Even the man who traded him is saying nice things.

''I've always had affection and admiration for Drew,'' says Patriots owner Robert Kraft. ''Except, of course, when he's playing against us.''

Kraft might end up admiring Bledsoe anyway when the Bills host the Patriots (3-4). Buffalo is 5-3 after going 3-13 last season, and a victory Sunday might just bury New England in the AFC East. The Bills are favored by 2 1/2 points.

The Bledsoe storyline will be played up right until kickoff, but in the game the quarterback might take a back seat to his running back, Travis Henry. New England is second in the NFL against the pass, but 29th against the run.

Buffalo's defense? The Bills don't play much of that.

Consider this the opposite of the theory about teams with winning streaks. A team that isn't bad enough to lose five straight won't.

PATRIOTS, 27-26

San Francisco (plus 3) at Oakland

Jerry Rice against the team he made famous. The Raiders don't lose four in a row.

RAIDERS, 24-23

Miami (plus 4 1/2) at Green Bay (Monday night)

Brett Favre should play. Jay Fiedler won't.

PACKERS, 24-16

Minnesota (plus 7) at Tampa Bay

The Bucs are the Bucs no matter who's coaching them.

BUCS, 9-7

Baltimore (plus 7 1/2) at Atlanta

Even if Ray Lewis were playing, Michael Vick would run all over the field.

FALCONS, 24-10

Philadelphia (minus 6) at Chicago

The Eagles do better in the NFC East than outside, but the Bears are struggling.

EAGLES, 33-19

Pittsburgh (minus 3) at Cleveland

An all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl?

STEELERS, 22-10

Cincinnati (plus 3) at Houston

This is NOT a guarantee ...

TEXANS, 17-16

St. Louis (minus 3) at Arizona

Rams continue their run at 11 straight.

RAMS, 24-14

Dallas (plus 3) at Detroit

A post-Emmitt-record letdown for Dallas.

LIONS, 13-12

Tennessee (plus 3 1/2) at Indianapolis

Two disappointing teams.

COLTS, 27-25

New York Jets (plus 7 1/2) at San Diego

The Jets are squabbling. The Chargers aren't.

CHARGERS, 24-7

Jacksonville (plus 3) at New York Giants

Did the Giants leave it all on the funny-looking Philly turf? Probably not.

GIANTS, 15-10

Washington (plus 2 1/2) at Seattle

Stephen Davis emulates Emmitt against a bad run defense.

REDSKINS, 19-18

----

LAST WEEK: 7-7 (spread), 9-5 (straight up)

SEASON: 55-60-1 (spread) 72-44 (straight up)

HEAD:Rice, Bledsoe get to take shots at old teams

BYLINE1:By The Associated Press

Drew Bledsoe facing the Patriots will feel odd. Jerry Rice against the 49ers will seem downright weird.

It's the NFL's version of homecoming weekend, with New England, mired in a four-game slump that has the Super Bowl champions spiraling into mediocrity, visiting Buffalo. The Patriots will find their former star quarterback running a potent offense.

''I'm having fun playing with the guys that I'm playing with,'' Bledsoe said. ''And I'm glad in the situation that I'm in.''

So is Rice, the game's best receiver for 15 years with the 49ers (5-2). They head Sunday to Oakland, where Rice still is posting strong numbers for the Raiders.

''He looks as if he hasn't lost any steps at all -- actually, he's looking even better than he did the last two years here,'' 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia said.

Bledsoe has been driven all season, intent on proving wrong the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick for discarding him in favor of the younger Tom Brady, who led New England (3-4) to the championship. Bledsoe leads the NFL with 2,500 yards passing for Buffalo (5-3).

''Any time you leave a team, you'd love to go back and beat them,'' he said. ''This would be sweet.''

Belichick is trying to keep the focus off his former quarterback in ''Bledsoe Bowl I.''

The Raiders, like the Patriots, need to break their losing ways. They won their first four and have lost three straight.

Miami (5-2) at Green Bay (6-1), Monday night

Miami still won't have QB Jay Fiedler, but WR Chris Chambers will return from a concussion. Also, Cris Carter came out of retirement for one last chance at an elusive Super Bowl ring. QB Ray Lucas is looking for atonement after being responsible for six turnovers in Miami's 23-10 loss to Buffalo.

Luck is the idol of the idle, and the Packers were truly blessed during their bye. Their lead in the NFC North increased to a whopping four games and with New Orleans losing, Green Bay owns the best record in the conference.

Brett Favre, who sprained his left knee Oct. 20 against Washington, expects his 164-game starting streak to continue. Also expected back are DE Vonnie Holliday, CB Mike McKenzie and SS Darren Sharper. But LT Chad Clifton (knee) might not return. That would mean Mike Flanagan would get his second straight start protecting Favre's blindside, facing Jason Taylor after neutralizing an aging Bruce Smith.

Pittsburgh (4-3) at Cleveland (4-4)

For the first time since they returned to the league in 1999, the Browns are playing for more than bragging rights. First-place in the AFC North is on the line.

The Steelers beat the Browns 16-13 in overtime Sept. 29, rallying behind Tommy Maddox, who replaced Kordell Stewart and led Pittsburgh to two scores. Maddox is 3-1 as a starter.

Tennessee (3-4) at Indianapolis (4-3)

The Colts come off two poor showings on national television. They can't run the ball, and that might not be resolved this week if two-time NFL rushing champ Edgerrin James can't play (partially torn right hamstring).

The Titans have won two straight with Eddie George and Steve McNair leading the way. A win in Indianapolis would serve as a statement the Titans are back -- and tie them for the AFC South lead.

St. Louis (2-5) at Arizona (4-3)

The team that used to play in St. Louis meets the team that plays there now. Arizona is 4-3 and second in the NFC West after a 38-28 loss at San Francisco, while St. Louis was off, but is on a two-game winning streak.

The Rams need a win to try to climb back into playoff contention. The Cardinals' strong run defense will face a major test because the Rams have relied more on Marshall Faulk following the loss of Kurt Warner to injury.

Baltimore (3-4) and Atlanta (4-3)

QB Jeff Blake makes his second straight start for the Ravens. A week ago, Blake was pressed into duty against Pittsburgh, completing 29 of 50 passes for 298 yards. The Ravens will be without star LB Ray Lewis, whose shoulder injury may be season-ending.

The Falcons have won three straight and four of five. Michael Vick still hasn't thrown an interception and leads the league at 9 yards per carry. Atlanta cut receiver Willie Jackson on Monday after he complained about his limited role in the offense. Rookie RB T.J. Duckett (foot) is expected to return after missing last week's victory over New Orleans.

Minnesota (2-5) at Tampa Bay (6-2)

The Vikings have lost 13 straight road games and have never won (0-4) at Raymond James Stadium. It won't be easy to break the streaks against the NFL's top-ranked defense and an offense that should get a lift from the expected return of quarterback Brad Johnson. He sat out last week with a broken rib and a stomach virus.

Tampa Bay, which is allowing a league-low 10.6 points per game, can match the best start in franchise history, in 1979.

Philadelphia (5-2) at Chicago (2-5)

The rematch of last year's playoff game appears to be a huge mismatch. The Eagles ran over the Giants on Monday night, and even with a short week might be too powerful for the frustrated and beat-up Bears, who have lost five straight.

Donovan McNabb put on a show for his hometown fans last January at Soldier Field, leading a 33-19 win. And now family and friends will have to motor 140 miles south to Champaign to watch him play against the team he rooted for as a kid.

Jacksonville (3-4) at New York Giants (3-4)

Coaches Tom Coughlin of the Jaguars and Jim Fassel of the Giants have come under fire, Coughlin moreso than Fassel. A Jacksonville fan spit at him as he walked off the field after a loss to expansion Houston last weekend, the Jaguars' third straight defeat.

Dallas (3-5) at Detroit (2-5)

The wait to break Walter Payton's rushing record ended for Emmitt Smith last week with a season-high 109 yards. Coach Dave Campo insists Smith will continue to be the No. 1 running back. Rookie QB Chad Hutchinson will make his second career start. He was 12-of-24 for 145 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions in the loss to Seattle.

New York Jets (2-5) at San Diego (6-1)

The Chargers return from their bye week by welcoming back LB Junior Seau, DE Marcellus Wiley and TE Stephen Alexander. But they lose hard-hitting strong safety Rodney Harrison to a one-game suspension for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Oakland's Jerry Rice two weeks ago.

Cincinnati (0-7) at Houston (2-5)

Bengals coach Dick LeBeau guaranteed a victory over the expansion Texans, who won on the road for the first time last week. The Texans are favored for the first time. Cincinnati has lost 14 of its last 16.

Washington (3-4) at Seattle (2-5)

QB Shane Matthews is starting again for the Skins. He delivered a 26-21 victory over Indianapolis, going 17-of-35 for 210 yards and two TDs.



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