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ON FOOTBALL

It's been a good little run, but let's wait until the Bucs stop here

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- When you beat up a team as bedraggled and broken as the Buffalo Bills, it can hardly be considered a statement game. But yesterday was at least a measuring stick for the Patriots and a welcome sign of progress after a long season of discomfort and discombobulation.

Six weeks ago, against the same Bills New England destroyed yesterday, 35-7, the Patriots barely escaped with a victory. Their defense was trampled, allowing 147 yards on the ground and 394 yards overall in a 21-16 New England victory. That night, the Bills made 24 first downs and limited the Patriots to 18, controlling third down and the clock for most of the night.

Yesterday, everything New England did was in stark contrast to that Oct. 30 game in Foxborough. This time, the Patriot offense rang up a club-record 32 first downs and 494 total yards (to 273 six weeks ago). Most significantly for the offense, the Patriots ran for 159 yards and threw for 336 against the same defense that limited them to 93 and 199, respectively, in the first meeting. And they allowed only one sack of Tom Brady despite having what amounted to a backup tackle and a backup center starting this time.

Defensively, the story was much the same. The defense that gave up all those yards in October held the Bills to eight first downs, 183 total yards, an incredible 14 yards rushing, and picked off three J.P. Losman lobs (it would be stretching it to call them throws). In other words, they dominated a team that dominated them less than two months ago. Dominated a team they should have dominated, which doesn't mean they'll dominate the league's more dominating teams when the playoffs roll around. But it was at least a faint sign that they are moving in the right direction at the right moment. At least they are no longer life-and-death against the weak sisters of the NFL, as they were earlier in the year when they barely escaped against the Dolphins and the Saints and these same Bills.

''We put together two good games back to back [including last weekend's 16-3 win over the Jets], but we still have a long way to go," defensive end Richard Seymour said. ''We don't want to get a sense of false confidence. We lost to several of the elite teams already, so we have to focus on ourselves and try to keep getting better. Compared to six weeks ago, we can definitely see we're playing better, but we have to continue to jell to be competitive with the elite teams like Indianapolis and Cincinnati."

Seymour was careful not to include his own team on that elite list, with good reason. He, like most of the veterans of the past two Super Bowl victories, understands who they are. This is, after all, ''the season of truth," according to coach Bill Belichick, and the truth -- until further notice -- is that there is space between these Patriots and the top teams in the AFC these days. But as they showed yesterday against the Bills, there's not as much space as there was six weeks ago.

''Certainly things have been better the last few weeks," Brady said after completing 29 of 38 passes for 329 yards, his first 300-yard passing game since Oct. 9 against Atlanta. ''We've got to keep improving, but that first game [against Buffalo] we couldn't make plays on third down and we couldn't get them off the field. Late in the year, you need to run the ball and we're running it better. When we use play-action now, the defenses have to react. They have to respect what Corey [Dillon] is doing back there [167 yards the last two weeks on 38 carries, 4.1 yards per rush]. We're certainly doing things better than we were earlier."

It's a good thing because if they weren't, they wouldn't be on the cusp of winning the division for the third straight season, as they are this morning, needing only a win or a Miami loss to clinch the AFC East. They probably wouldn't even be 8-5 going into another test against a playoff-caliber team, Tampa Bay, Saturday. That game will be the next measuring stick for them because, as things stand, these Patriots are 2-5 against teams with winning records, a mark that will be changed Saturday at The Big Razor when the 9-4 Buccaneers, who are tied for the NFC South lead with Carolina, come into frigid Foxborough.

Any team that comes to play these Patriots has to respect them for all they have accomplished. As everyone in football knows, they have won three of the last four Super Bowls, are led by perhaps the most clutch quarterback in the game, and have a defense that has begun to get all its pieces back with the exception of safety Rodney Harrison, and now has a better corner in rookie Ellis Hobbs than either Randall Gay or Tyrone Poole was this season.

Yet, they know things are different than they were a year ago. They are the defending champions, and that demands respect, but they know it is not the same kind of feeling they engendered the past two years, when they were a 14-2 juggernaut that won 21 games in a row at one point.

''We're 8-5," Brady said. ''I don't think anyone's too fearful of a team that's 8-5. We won two games in a row, but we've got a tough challenge this week against Tampa Bay. It's a short week, so we've got to put a lot into it and see if we can put together a great game against one of the best teams in the NFC."

That, of course, will be a different benchmark. It is a longer measuring stick than the Bills were yesterday, one that will test the improving Patriots against a question they have not yet answered this season.

''How good are we?" Seymour said. ''I don't know. I just know early in the year against Denver and Indianapolis, we didn't do as well as we'd like, so we understand there are still some good football teams out there [to play]. A win like this sometimes can be tricky. You have to stay focused on what you need to do, but I definitely believe we can play with anyone in the division. Now we've got to show we can play with anyone in the conference."

They will have to wait for the playoffs for that, but in five days they'll have the chance to prove whether they can play with another playoff team, a Tampa Bay team that yesterday beat the Panthers by 10. That's the same Panther team that beat Seymour's Patriots by 10, 27-17, 11 games ago.

That game was a lifetime ago in the NFL. Now, in five short days, the Patriots will get a chance to see what the difference is, if any, between them and those imposters who wore red, white, and blue 11 games ago.

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