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By David Staba

Big, bold letters capped the pre-kickoff MTV montage on the CBS broadcast of New England's much-hyped house call on the Buffalo Bills:


"Guess the rest of the guys couldn't make it," I cracked to the guy sitting next to me at Gabriel's Gate, a house built in 1864-turned restaurant on Allen Street in Buffalo.

He chuckled, sharing my disdain for the overly simplistic analysis you expect from the people who televise sporting events.

Except, in this case at least, the guys in the graphics department couldn't have called it more perfectly.

Drew Bledsoe turned in a solid, if painful, day's work against his former team. The vast majority of his teammates should be embarrassed to accept their paychecks.

Buffalo's defense, which acquired a spurious "improved" tag against a trio of battered, inexperienced and/or inept offenses as the Bills won three straight, served as a pathetic foil to the Patriots.

The Bills couldn't tackle their discarded former feature back, Antowain Smith, when he slammed up the middle. Or when he, or any other Patriot, caught a screen pass from Tom Brady.

Much blame also falls on the Bills' coaches, who were out-worked and out-thought by Bill Belichick and his staff.

Buffalo offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride never adjusted to the blitzing Patriots or the no-down-linemen fronts New England defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel threw at Bledsoe.

After the game, the Bills continued acting as if they'd never seen, or even imagined, the innovation. Even though the Patriots used it extensively in similarly confusing Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams in last February's Super Bowl.

Jerry Gray, the Bills' defensive coordinator, got similarly baffled by New England offensive honcho Charlie Weis. Gray wouldn't, or couldn't, adjust to the steady diet of screen passes. A play that should never work more than once or twice a game instead slashed at Buffalo's flanks nine times for 144 yards and three touchdowns, two to Smith (who got exiled to the bench in Buffalo, then banished, in no small part because he allegedly can't catch). In all, the Patriots scored on six of their seven drives that mattered.

Head coach Gregg Williams didn't distinguish himself, either. His team looked more ready for an exhibition contest than its biggest game of the year to date. The decision to punt on fourth-and-2 from New England's 32-yard-line while trailing by 10 points on the opening drive of the second half can't possibly be explained away.

The BillStuff coverage day itself got off to a somewhat disorienting start. The choice of Gabriel's Gate was based on numerous testimonials to the quality of the joint's wings. Something didn't seem quite right when we settled in at the shiny antique bar. At first, the rays pouring in through the skylights in the elevated ceiling seemed at fault. Natural illumination in such a setting can give one the vaguely guilty feeling of ordering a drink in church.

Once that subsided, though, it became clear the problem had roots in sound, not sight. For out of the place's sound system oozed the wildly inappropriate bounciness of "My Baby Takes the Morning Train" by Sheena Easton. This even as the pregame hype steadily built on the two television sets on either end of the bar.

Surrounded by brunchers chattering so discreetly we couldn't eavesdrop, bathed in sunlight and wincing as Easton's chirping bore its way deep into our brains (where it remains), we began to wonder if we'd made a horrible mistake in site selection. Then Jim, the Bills hat-and-sweatshirt clad barkeep, saved the day.

"Let's get some sound going," he said, mercifully euthanizing the music with a remote control and replacing it with Bill Parcells' rasping drone.

Any drama ended shortly after 1 p.m., though, when Brady hit every pass on the way to New England's first touchdown and Bledsoe failed to answer, looking not unlike Rob Johnson while absorbing the sack that ended Buffalo's first drive.

It got steadily uglier, with Brady and Smith leading New England to a 17-0 lead. Bledsoe injected a bit of life into things with a two-minute drive that made it a 10-point game at halftime and moved the Bills into position to make a game of it after intermission.

Until Williams surrendered on that fourth down. At that point, this much became very obvious -- the Patriots won that aforementioned Super Bowl for a reason, while the Bills shouldn't even think about the playoffs until they show they can stop, or at least slow, a remotely decent offense.

By the end of the third quarter, we were discussing car shopping with Scott and Alyssa, who arrived at halftime and are leaning toward a Honda Civic.

The eight taxidermied ungulate heads circling the bar area, ranging from a 32-point caribou to an antelope to the obligatory buffalo to a mysterious four-horned creature, provided another distraction.

"When people ask what that is, I tell them it's called 'a taxidermist's mistake,'" said Jim, who explained that the owner briefly took the heads down after some environmentalist types complained, then put them back up after a teacher brought her elementary-school class to see them, only to be disappointed. A note on the back of the menu tells visitors that the heads were purchased from a museum in Pennsylvania, and apologizes to the easily offended.

BILLS MVP: Bledsoe, by default. He threw for 302 yards and Buffalo's only touchdown despite no visible support from his blockers or Eric Moulds, who dropped three eminently catchable balls.

BILLS NON-BLEDSOE MVP: Not applicable.

PATRIOTS MVP: Smith (142 total yards and three touchdowns) and Brady (23-of-27 passing for 310 yards and four scores) performed almost perfectly, giving the Patriots the balance they've been missing all year.

WING REPORT: Saucy, but not greasy. Spicy, but not overwhelming. Unfortunately, BillStuff filled up on a brunch-menu breakfast consisting of copious amounts of French toast, home fries and bacon, so could only manage to put down a half-dozen. Grade: A-.

BS FAN OF THE WEEK: Scott, who is more of a Sabres loyalist, got disappointed by both of his teams on the same day.

"That was absolutely painful," he said as Bledsoe picked himself up off the turf for the last time. "Absolutely painful."

Honorable mention goes to Joe, a Gate regular who bought the BillStuff staff a round, well, just because.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter and the editor of the BuffaloPOST. He welcomes email at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com November 5 2002