FOXBORO, Mass. (Oct. 26, 2005) -- As they try to become the first team in NFL history to win three consecutive Super Bowls, the New England Patriots haven't had much to smile about this season.
The unexpected return of linebacker Tedy Bruschi would certainly give them a reason to feel good.
Only 8 1/2 months after suffering a mild stroke, Bruschi could be back in uniform for the Patriots when they play host to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday night.
Bruschi, the energetic and emotional leader of the defending champions, began practicing last week and must await coach Bill Belichick's decision on his status.
"I'd like to get out there and see," Bruschi said before the Wednesday practice, his second with contact. "But it's out of my control now. I'm back. I'm a player. I'm a member of the team. So I've trusted my coaches ever since I was in high school."
After a bye week, the Patriots are home for their first division game of the season. Bruschi expects his excitement to build throughout the week.
"It's Wednesday," he said. "I think I'll start to feel excited come the weekend."
Bruschi returned to practice Oct. 19 after receiving medical clearance, but there was no contact until Oct. 24. After an initial anxiety, he said he felt fine during that practice.
"It felt like a first day of training camp for me before I really get my first hit in training camp," he said. "So, of course, the first play they run at me is a fullback lead. So after that play, I think I was all right."
Bruschi was hospitalized Feb. 16 after the stroke, then had surgery to close a hole in his heart in March. He has been working out and attending team meetings since training camp began last July. He said in September he wouldn't play this season, then changed his mind after consulting several doctors.
He remains on the physically unable to perform list, but wasn't among the 14 players listed on the Patriots' initial injury report.
Belichick said Bruschi hasn't suffered any setbacks since resuming practice, but didn't know how ready he is for a game. He also said Bruschi is behind his teammates because he missed so many practices, but did what everybody else did at the practices.
At 3-3, New England already has more losses than it had in each of the past two seasons when they won the Super Bowl.
Having Bruschi back would provide a much-needed lift for the Patriots, who have allowed 164 points this season and have the league's 26th-ranked defense. That unit has been hurt by injuries to safety Rodney Harrison, cornerbacks Tyrone Poole, Randall Gay and Duane Starks and lineman Richard Seymour.
New England has 21 days from Bruschi's first practice, until Nov. 9, to activate him or place him on injured reserve, which would end his season. If he misses the Nov. 7 home game against Indianapolis, he still could be activated for the Nov. 13 game at Miami.
"You hear him every time, every snap," defensive lineman Jarvis Green said. "It's just good to see him back out there after what he's been through."
Buffalo's offense has struggled all season, especially on the road, where they have failed to win in three tries this season.
Much of the club's offensive problems can be traced to an anemic passing game.
Whether it's Kelly Holcomb or former starter J.P. Losman at quarterback, the Bills have completed only four passes of 20 yards or longer -- and only one on the road.
"I'm not frustrated. I'm a little disappointed," receiver Eric Moulds said. "That's the offense we're running right now, and hopefully, eventually, the coaches will see that we need to throw the ball downfield a little more."
Poor pass protection, a banged-up offensive line and overthrown passes have limited what the Bills can do.
"We just have not been able to hit that one when it's called at the right time, but we're not going to stop calling them," Bills coach Mike Mularkey said. "We understand that's how you get big chunks. That's how you get momentum. And we have just not for some reason been able to do it."
STANDINGS: Bills -- 2nd place, AFC East. Patriots -- 1st place, AFC East.
BILLS LEADERS: Offense -- Holcomb, 527 passing yards and 5 passing TDs; Willis McGahee, 654 rushing yards and 4 rushing TDs; Moulds, 28 receptions, 238 receiving yards and 2 receiving TDs. Defense -- Ryan Denney and Aaron Schobel, 3 sacks; Troy Vincent, 3 interceptions.
PATRIOTS LEADERS: Offense -- Tom Brady, 1,821 passing yards and 8 passing TDs; Corey Dillon, 329 rushing yards and 5 rushing TDs; Deion Branch, 37 receptions and 437 receiving yards; Daniel Graham and Tim Dwight, 2 receiving TDs. Defense -- Willie McGinest, 2½ sacks; Mike Vrabel, 1 interception.
BILLS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense -- 124.6 yards per game (12th in NFL); Passing Offense -- 113.4 ypg (31st); Total Offense -- 238.0 ypg (30th). Rushing Defense -- 159.0 ypg (31st); Passing Defense -- 153.6 ypg (3rd); Total Defense -- 312.6 ypg (16th).
PATRIOTS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense -- 82.3 yards per game (27th); Passing Offense -- 295.5 ypg (2nd); Total Offense -- 377.8 ypg (3rd). Rushing Defense -- 125.3 ypg (25th); Passing Defense -- 228.0 ypg (24th); Total Defense -- 353.3 ypg (26th).
LAST MEETING: Nov. 15, 2004; Patriots, 29-6. At Foxboro, Mass., Brady threw two touchdown passes, Adam Vinatieri kicked five field goals and Dillon rushed for 151 yards.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Bills -- Buffalo has gone 37 games without a 300-yard passing performance, dating to Drew Bledsoe's 314 yards in a 38-17 victory at Jacksonville on Sept. 14, 2003. ... WR Lee Evans, who gained 17.6 yards a catch as a rookie last year, is down to 12.9 this season. ... Buffalo has never tied the game or regained the lead when down at the half in each of its four losses. Patriots -- The Patriots haven't won or lost back-to-back games this season. ... Six of the Pats' last 10 games are against division opponents. ... Pro Bowl DE Seymour plans to play after missing the past two games with a knee injury.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Bills -- 0-3 on the road; Patriots -- 1-1 at home.