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PATRIOTS 28, BILLS 6

All is looking up

Patriots start off strong, then finish a victory over Bills

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- When the Patriots began the majority of their preparations for yesterday's game against the Bills, coach Bill Belichick wasn't happy.

It was Wednesday, the players were returning after their weekend off, and the practice performance wasn't up to his standards. What resulted was a marathon Thursday practice, and some harsh words from Belichick.

"What I remember is Bill yelling and screaming at us, saying we can't have another crappy Wednesday the way we had it," recalled safety Rodney Harrison. "We had almost two practices in one the next day. That's what you have to have when there's a lack of focus and concentration."

The team turned it around in that Thursday practice, then carried the effort into yesterday's 28-6 victory over the Bills at rain-soaked Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Patriots scored on the opening drive, took a 14-3 lead at the end of the first quarter, and strung together big plays on offense, defense, and special teams in an effort that highlighted how they are in a different class than the overmatched, bungling Bills.

Offensively, the Patriots finally hit on a long-awaited big passing play, a 35-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Tom Brady to rookie receiver Chad Jackson in the third quarter. The unit also converted eight of 15 third-down opportunities.

Meanwhile, New England's defense totaled three turnovers -- a strip sack by linebacker Mike Vrabel, an interception by cornerback Asante Samuel, and a fumble recovery by linebacker Tedy Bruschi when the ball slipped out of quarterback J.P. Losman's grasp.

And on special teams, rookie Laurence Maroney dazzled with a 74-yard kickoff return in the first quarter.

All told, it didn't look like a team that sputtered through a practice earlier in the week.

"Looking back, we didn't play Patriots football on Wednesday," said safety Artrell Hawkins. "Coming off the long bye week, I guess it took an extra day to start the engines. But Thursday we came back and corrected the stuff that wasn't so good and we ended up having a longer practice. But it paid off."

In convincing fashion.

The barrage started early, with the Patriots winning the coin toss and scoring a touchdown on their opening drive for the first time this season. That had been a point of emphasis throughout the week, as Buffalo hadn't allowed a touchdown on an opening drive, but the Bills were sliced up on a 14-play, 71-yard march that culminated in running back Corey Dillon's 8-yard run.

Buffalo responded with a 58-yard drive that advanced to the Patriots' 13-yard line, the key play a short pass from Losman to running back Willis McGahee that McGahee raced 56 yards. But the Patriots' defense stiffened, with some help from Losman, who fumbled a third-down snap that he was fortunate to pounce on. The Bills settled for a field goal, making it 7-3.

Maroney then ripped off the dynamic 74-yard kickoff return and what ensued was a snapshot of the difference between the Patriots and Bills.

Facing third and 10 from the Bills' 12, Brady scrambled to his right, looking for an open receiver before dropping to the ground to give himself up. But defensive end Chris Kelsay raced in and popped Brady, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty and giving the Patriots a first down. Dillon scored on the next play, racing around the left side from 12 yards out.

"The roughing the passer was an unbelievable situation," said Bills coach Dick Jauron. "It's hard to figure out how that can occur when a guy sits down and we have them third and long. Those are foolish things we have to stop doing and they're on my shoulders."

The Patriots survived a rough patch in the second quarter when their pass protection broke down at times, but the defense bailed them out after the Bills twice drove into New England territory. Vrabel's strip sack, which was recovered by Vince Wilfork, came after the Bills advanced to the Patriots' 41, and then Samuel's interception came after penetration to the 23.

The Patriots blew the game open in the second half, with Brady (18 of 27, 195 yards, 2 TDs) connecting with Jackson for the 35-yard score in the right-hand corner of the end zone with 2:42 left in the third. That made it 21-3, and had the Patriots on their way to their 12th victory over the Bills in the teams' last 13 meetings.

The Bills added a 46-yard Rian Lindell field goal early in the fourth quarter, cutting the edge to 21-6, but the Patriots answered with an eight-play, 67-yard drive that ended with Brady finding Doug Gabriel for a 5-yard touchdown pass. It marked the Patriots' third trip inside the red zone, and their third touchdown.

The Patriots (5-1) remain in command of the AFC East, with the Jets (4-3), Bills (2-5), and Dolphins (1-6) trailing. The team is 4-0 in divisional play, and players were glad to put their shoddy Wednesday practice behind them.

"Everyone responded well," Hawkins said. "No one wants to work extra hours, but it's work that has to get done. You really saw guys competing to make others better, offensively and defensively and on special teams."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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