By: Bob George/
December 06, 2002

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If. When. The difference between these two words is as wide as the Grand Canyon.

Or, speaking in terms that people in these parts can understand, as wide as the Longfellow Bridge.

When the Patriots run the table. If the Patriots run the table. Let's run a poll of all Patriot Nation and see who is in the "when" camp versus the "if" camp.

Then, take all those "when" folk and ask them what happens when you assume. Don't forget to include the part about "u" and "me".

Right now, the Patriots are about beating the Buffalo Bills, and not about 11-5. That's great, as long as the players are solid with that. Fans may have another agenda, but everyone who swears allegiance to the world champs need to understand that basic tenet going into this weekend. There is no 11-5 if the Patriots cannot sweep the Bills on Sunday.

Not surprisingly, the blowup concerning Drew Bledsoe's return to Foxborough has been downplayed. All the players, especially Bledsoe, are absolutely down with that idea. To Bledsoe, this will be simply another game once the expected loud pregame ovation dies down. To the Patriots, it is a must win if they are to win the division.

Not that this game isn't important to the Bills, either. A loss and the Bills can pretty much kiss postseason goodbye. In this incredible year where two AFC East teams are 7-5 and the other two are 6-6, losses from here on in are kisses of death.

That said, anyone who thinks that this is a gimme win for the Patriots is in dreamland. Everyone thinks that because this is a home game and that Bill Belichick really does own Bledsoe, the Patriots ought to be prohibitive favorites in this game and will merely use this game as a stepping stone on their way to 11-5.

Besides, they won their last six regular season games last year. Doing the same this year seems like a mere right of passage to many folks. As it turns out, each of the last four games are indeed winnable for the Patriots. 11-5 is a definite possibility for the Patriots.

But each of these four games are equally as losable. There is nothing chiseled in concrete that says the Patriots will indeed win out. The Patriots will not be heavy favorites in any of these games, though they may be slight favorites in three of them. But every game presents both a gold mine and a land mine for the Patriots.

And it begins with this weekend's tilt with Buffalo. Calling it "Drew Bowl II" means that you love cliché and probably have no life. This weekend is about getting to 8-5, not about showing Bledsoe that Belichick knew what he was doing when he made Tom Brady the new starting quarterback for the Patriots.

In fact, Bledsoe can throw for 400 yards, for all we care. As long as the Patriots outscore his team, his passing stats mean zilch. It worked in the first meeting this year, and it'll work again.

The matchups the Patriots need to concentrate on involve Travis Henry and the Bills' secondary, not Bledsoe. If Henry has a great game, the Patriots are in trouble and it won't matter what Bledsoe does. If Brady has a great day in ridding the Bills' secondary, Bledsoe can ring up huge numbers and it won't mean a darn.

Bledsoe wasn't much of a factor in the first meeting, a 38-7 win by the Patriots on November 3rd. Brady sure was, though, as he set a Patriot record by completing 85 percent of his passes and throwing four touchdown passes. Bledsoe can do a lot of things, but he can't stop Brady.

Bledsoe can hand off to Henry, though. Henry is currently fourth in the league in rushing yardage with 1,108 yards. He is averaging a robust 4.7 yards per carry. If the Patriots cannot contain Henry, winning this game will be difficult. In the first game, Henry was held to 53 yards rushing, and the Patriots won the all-important time of possession battle which kept both Henry and Bledsoe on the bench. The result speaks for itself.

If the Patriots want to make a win more of a solid prospect on Sunday, they basically have to do much of the same of what they did in the first meeting. But a few other wrinkles wouldn't hurt, either.

Bledsoe and his mates will play extra harder than they did in the first game. Bledsoe will want to play his best game ever in front of his old fans. The rest of his teammates will want to use the win over Miami last week as a springboard to a winning streak that helps get them in Wild Card country.

What the Patriots need to try and do is to have a huge first half. They need to sap the life out of the Bills early, and to get the Gillette Stadium crowd fully into the game. It doesn't have to include or involve beating the tar out of Bledsoe. Score with the same efficiency as they did in the first game, and things should be okay for the home team. If the teams go into the fourth quarter with the score close, a game like that might favor the Bills, especially given what happened last week.

Forcing Bledsoe into turnovers will naturally be at the forefront of any game planning by Belichick and Romeo Crennel. What will be a bigger priority will be to put a licking on Peerless Price and Eric Moulds. Stopping these two dangerous greyhounds is more important that sending in thirty different blitz packages to harass Bledsoe. Blitzes mean nothing if Bledsoe still manages to get the ball off and hits Moulds all day with Ty Law playing him seven yards off the line of scrimmage.

What will help the Patriots somewhat is that their next opponent is Tennessee, and not the Jets or Miami. That might hurt next Monday night, but the Patriots won't exactly be caught "looking ahead" on Sunday. If they are looking ahead right now to Miami, find something else to do Sunday, because the game won't appeal to you one bit.

And of course, the Patriots have to play error-free and penalty-free. The Patriots simply have to put a lid on the penalties they have been running up lately. The Bills are not a team like the previous two where you have that kind of leeway. If Charlie Weis cussed out his offensive line this week for forgotten snap counts, good for him.

Belichick perhaps had this game in mind when he dealt Bledsoe to Buffalo. Unfortunately, at 6-6 the Bills are a greatly improved team. The Patriots will likely not get a top ten draft pick for Bledsoe. The biggest danger in trading Bledsoe to Buffalo was that, despite the Patriots likely being able to handle him, he would wind up making the Bills significantly better and put them into the playoff picture.

Given that, the Patriots have a tougher foe this year versus last year. Bledsoe will be jacked up in front of his former home fans. The Patriots may still yet win, but it is a much tougher task thanks to the Bills having Bledsoe.

So, a final message to all of the Nation: Keep 11-5 in the "maybe" category, and leave it there.