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Preview: Buffalo at New England

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (Sept. 6, 2006) -- The New England Patriots are coming off another tumultuous offseason. The last one helped end their title reign, and some wonder if this one could keep the team out of the playoffs altogether.

For the second straight year, the Patriots enter the season having lost a collection of key members to their Super Bowl teams when they host the Buffalo Bills.

"I don't think last year has anything to do with what's going to happen on Sunday at all," said New England safety Rodney Harrison, who missed most of last season with a knee problem.

New England overcame Harrison's injury and many others to go 10-6 and finish atop a weak AFC East last year, even after losing coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel as well as linebacker Ted Johnson and cornerback Ty Law.

The offseason losses this time are just as big.

The team saw wide receiver David Givens, linebacker Willie McGinest and kicker Adam Vinatieri leave via free agency, and defensive coordinator Eric Mangini became coach of the New York Jets.

Deion Branch, the 2005 Super Bowl MVP, has been a contract holdout and it seems unlikely he'll get back in a Patriots uniform. He's filed two grievances against the team after it turned down trade offers from the Jets and Seattle Seahawks.

The absence of Branch and Givens leaves quarterback Tom Brady, who led the team to three Super Bowl wins in four years before last season, without his top two receivers from 2005. The Patriots were forced to acquire Doug Gabriel from Oakland and Jonathan Smith from Buffalo last weekend.

"We'll have to see how all of that works out," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "That's a process that we're going to have to go through. We'll try to accelerate it as much as we can this week, but I'm sure that it will take a little longer than that."

Brady, who threw for a career-high 4,110 yards and 26 touchdowns last year, also is likely to be missing a key newcomer on offense in the opener. First-round draft pick Laurence Maroney, expected to take some carries from veteran Corey Dillon this year, injured his knee in the team's third exhibition game.

On the other side of the ball, New England may be missing linebacker Tedy Bruschi due to a broken wrist that kept him out of the preseason. The 33-year-old middle linebacker missed the first six games of 2005 after suffering a stroke.

The Pats went 7-3 after Bruschi's return last season en route to a third straight division title. They were one win away from a return to the AFC championship game, but lost 27-13 to the Denver Broncos in the divisional round.

To add security for Bruschi, the Patriots signed 37-year-old Junior Seau after his four-day retirement from the San Diego Chargers.

"I think we're very comfortable with the football team that we've got," said New England's Mike Vrabel, expected to start alongside Seau at middle linebacker.

"You look at three or four weeks of camp, you're practicing with guys and different people are in and out. You understand that that's how it's going to be when the season comes. You're not going to play with the same guys throughout the course of a 16-game schedule and into the playoffs."

Hosting the Bills could be a good way for the Patriots to start off on the right foot, having won the last five meetings and 10 of 11. Buffalo has lost five straight in Foxborough since Nov. 5, 2000.

The Bills enter the season with a new coach, a new general manager and an overhauled roster hoping to end a six-year playoff drought -- the franchise's longest since the NFL merger.

Buffalo has 21 new players as it tries to rebuild after a 5-11 season.

"I think last year was probably my most frustrating year in professional football," Bills linebacker London Fletcher-Baker said. "I was just like, 'Man, let me get this nightmare over with because it's just one thing after another."'

The retooling started with the hiring of Marv Levy as general manager in January. The 81-year-old Hall of Famer retired after the 1997 season as the winningest coach in Bills' history (112-70) and led them to four consecutive Super Bowls.

The next hiring was coach Dick Jauron, who spent 2005 as the Detroit Lions defensive coordinator.

Jauron was 35-46 as Chicago Bears coach from 1999-2003 before being fired, but the Bills have welcomed the change from Mike Mularkey.

"You're not walking around on pins and needles," Bills safety Troy Vincent said. "He's not trying to be someone he's not. ... He's making people feel at ease but yet uncomfortable. He's been very up front. And as a player, everyone should be able to appreciate that."

One thing he was up front about was the starting quarterback position. J.P. Losman won the preseason competition with Kelly Holcomb and Craig Nall.

Losman stumbled last season, throwing for 1,340 yards with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions in nine games, including eight starts.

The offense is expected to center around Willis McGahee, who rushed for 1,247 yards last season, but saw his touchdown total drop from 13 to five.

He is expected to be more involved in the passing game despite only making 50 receptions for 247 yards in his first two NFL seasons.

INJURIES

Buffalo Bills:
QUESTIONABLE
SS Matt Bowen (Shin)

New England Patriots:

QUESTIONABLE
ILB Tedy Bruschi (Wrist)
WR Chad Jackson (Hamstring)
T Nick Kaczur (Shoulder)

PROBABLE
QB Tom Brady (Shoulder)
WR Doug Gabriel (Hamstring)
G Steve Neal (Ankle)

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