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Thursday, October 31
 
Not just another game for Bledsoe

By Sal Paolantonio
ESPN.com

BUFFALO -- Drew Bledsoe walked into the Buffalo Bills cavernous indoor practice facility wearing a comfy, gray hooded sweatshirt with the team logo stitched across his chest.

He talked about the "small-town" qualities of his new home, this under-appreciated city in western New York that suffers through its debilitating winters and heart-breaking football seasons with the same gusto. And he wanted everybody to know that he loves throwing the football to Peerless Price and Eric Moulds, hoping to leave no room for doubt that he is happy in the second act of his NFL career.

Drew Bledsoe is on pace to pass for 5,000 yards and 32 touchdowns this season.
But then he started talking about the 2001 football season, his last season with the New England Patriots, and the hurt bubbles to the surface as the lingering bitterness tumbles from his lips.

"I had this game taken away from me with an injury and I wasn't able to get it back -- that was hard," he said.

And when the subject of Sunday's game against his old team came up, Bledsoe spilled out this simple indication of how he really feels:

"I want to win that game very bad," Bledsoe said.

That's what is at stake Sunday when the Patriots play the Bills in Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium. Kick-off is at 1 o'clock. Snow is expected.

"I think the biggest thing he's going to have to contend with is his emotions," said Bills offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. "Just keeping them in check."

Added Eric Moulds, "He'll be pretty excited and jacked."

Bledsoe, Moulds said, hasn't addressed the team about what's at stake when he faces the Patriots for the first time. "He doesn't have to," said Moulds, who stressed that Bledsoe seems to have very little self-doubt as he prepares for what Bill Belichick might have in store for him.

"I call him 'Swagger,' " Moulds said. And why not? Bledsoe is the top-rated quarterback in the AFC, completing 63.8 percent of his passes for a league-high 2,500 yards. His 16 TD passes tie him for first in the AFC. And Moulds and Price are the second- and third-ranked receivers in the AFC, having caught 57 and 51 passes while scoring a combined 11 touchdowns.

"Eric is as good as anybody I have ever played with," said Bledsoe. "He brings such a physical style to his play. He's so fast and he's got very strong hands. As for Peerless, I didn't know too much about him when I came here. But I just told him from the beginning that I'll be looking to him to make plays, and he has."

So much so that the Bills, who averaged 16 points a game last season, have been tearing it up this year, putting up Rams-like numbers: 30.1 points per game. And, more important, Buffalo has defied the preseason prognostications by finishing the first half of the season 5-3, a half-game off the AFC East lead and 1½ games ahead of the team that traded Bledsoe, the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots.

Despite these early season successes, Bledsoe has not forgotten what happened last year in New England. He got hurt Week 2, when Mo Lewis' vicious sideline hit knocked him cold and severed a blood vessel his lung. Then, when Bledsoe was healthy, Belichick decided to stick with the hot hand at quarterback, young Tom Brady -- despite the age-old NFL adage that you can't lose your starting job to injury.

Then, after Brady was hurt in the AFC championship game and Bledsoe came off the bench to throw a brilliant touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone to David Patten to spark a comeback win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Belichick decided to go back to Brady for the Super Bowl start.

Of course, Belichick's decisions all worked perfectly. But the sting is still there for Bledsoe.

NFL Countdown
ESPN's Sal Paolantonio sat down last week with Drew Bledsoe in Buffalo. The interview can be seen on NFL Countdown, 11 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN.
"It was hard," Bledsoe said in a long interview last week. "I played eight years without really being hurt seriously and hadn't had to deal with that part of the game. So, to get hurt and to have to miss games, that part of it was very hard. And so when I came back and somebody else had my job and I couldn't get it back. You know that was hard."

Bledsoe said he started keeping a journal, something his mother, Barbara, encouraged him to do.

"I won't go into it, because it's highly personal," he said, "but it was therapeutic for me to kind of sort out my thoughts about what was going on and at the same time, you know, just kind of provide an insight for my kids as they get older as to what I was thinking while going through an interesting, yet difficult, period of my life."

I asked Bledsoe if he felt he had been misled by Belichick last year.

He took a long, deep breath. "I don't know," he said. "I don't really dwell on it too much. It was a hard situation personally. But still it was something that I was proud of -- you know I've got that ring. And not too many people in the world have those. And I have worn it and I'm proud of it. I just keep telling people that I'll be more proud of it when we win here."

I'll be more proud of it when we win here. Strong stuff from a guy who spent nine years in New England.

Everybody knew that the Patriots could not keep Brady and Bledsoe. The front office could have finagled the salary-cap numbers, but the locker room would have been a mess. Belichick, insistent on getting a first round pick in exchange for Bledsoe, bit the bullet and traded No. 11 to another AFC East team.

Some thought it was an act of desperation. Others contended it was one last slap at Bledsoe -- in effect, Belichick saying that Bledsoe's career was so finished he didn't mind trading the veteran quarterback to a team the Patriots would face twice a year.

Now, players around the league are flabbergasted by the decision, which looks more and more misguided each week. After Bledsoe tore up the Dolphins in Miami on Oct. 20, Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas openly wondered what Belichick could possibly have been thinking when he traded Bledsoe within the division.

I don't have that part of me that's vindictive or any of that stuff that I think people would expect to see -- that's really just not a really big part of my makeup. But I'll be playing against a lot of guys that I went to war with for a lot of years. And it's kind of like competing with your brother, I guess. You're going to want to win that one because you're going to have to hear about it for a really long time.
Drew Bledsoe on playing the Patriots

Here's what Houston Texans cornerback Aaron Glenn said: "It was a real surprise to me when they did that. People talk about how those receivers up in Buffalo have made him better, but I played against them last year and I played against them this year. They had those same receivers last year, too. Bledsoe's made them better."

Indeed, Moulds told me that the first thing he did in the spring when Bledsoe arrived for mini-camp was to tell him to assume leadership of the team immediately.

"I went to him right away and told him, 'This is your football team. We're going to go as far as your arm can take us,' " Moulds said. "He was surprised when I said that to him. And I just told him I want to win bad and he can get me where he's been."

Moulds said he sees a competitive fire in Bledsoe that he's just beginning to understand, and that it's very obvious in the game leading up to New England. Bledsoe acknowledged that this game has special meaning -- but only if Buffalo wins. Losing is not an option.

"I don't have that part of me that's vindictive or any of that stuff that I think people would expect to see -- that's really just not a really big part of my makeup," said Bledsoe. "But I'll be playing against a lot of guys that I went to war with for a lot of years. And it's kind of like competing with your brother, I guess. You're going to want to win that one because you're going to have to hear about it for a really long time."

Does he want it bad because he wants to beat Belichick?

"I want to win because I want to win the game," he said. "I'm competing against a bunch of guys I have a ton of respect for."

That's what happens when you bring up Belichick's name. Bledsoe changes the subject. He won't discuss his relationship with Belichick. He won't even utter Belichick's name, referring to him as "the head coach."

Bledsoe is still friends with Brady. He invited Brady to his place in Montana and called to congratulate him when he signed a new multi-year contract with the Patriots. And he still calls many of his former Patriots teammates friends.

But, come Sunday, Bledsoe will attempt to put all of it -- old friendships and old ghosts -- behind him once and for all.

Until, of course, the Bills travel to play in New England on Dec. 8.

Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN.






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