- The Washington Times - Friday, November 1, 2002

Drew Bledsoe's first game against New England has been circled on plenty of calendars since he was traded to AFC East rival Buffalo on April 21. But few anticipated the Bills, 3-13 last year, would come into the game with a better record than the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots.
That's the scenario as New England (3-4 after four straight losses) meets Buffalo (5-3 after three consecutive victories) on Sunday. Considered washed-up in New England at 30, Bledsoe is the AFC's top passer and is on pace to throw for 5,000 yards the second most in NFL history and 32 touchdowns.
"I hoped when this game came around, it would have playoff implications, and that has proven to be true," Bledsoe said. "On a personal level, it will be an emotional game for me. It's like competing against your brother. You're playing against guys you've gone to war with, guys you have tremendous respect for.
"A lot of those guys are still my friends. I talk to them frequently. If we lose, I'm going to have to hear about it all year. I'd rather be on the winning side so they have to hear about it from me."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who opted for Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady over Bledsoe, said he doesn't regret dealing the older player for a first-round draft choice.
"It was a situation that at some point there was going to have to be some kind of resolution to [because Bledsoe was too well-paid to be a backup and wasn't happy in that role], and I did what I thought was best for the football team," Belichick said. "Drew's a good player, [and] we traded him for a fairly valuable pick. He's playing well."
Rice's reunion Bledsoe isn't the only star facing his old team for the first time Sunday. Oakland's Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver in NFL history, will go against the San Francisco 49ers, for whom he starred for 16 years.
Bill Walsh, Rice's first NFL coach and now a 49ers consultant, said San Francisco's cap problems and Rice's advancing age forced the painful choice to cut him on June 4, 2001, even though Rice had caught 75 passes with seven touchdowns at age 38.
"Obviously, we wanted Jerry to finish his career here," Walsh said. "He personified the 49ers. [But] how could the greatest player of all time take a 50 percent cut? It just wasn't right. Jerry's a phenomenon.
"A lot of people would like to do what he's doing, but their legs go they just can't do it for that many years. He has incredible stamina. Above and beyond that, he's one of those unique people who can continue to intensely focus on what he's doing for a long period of time, long after any of us would be able to."
Now 40, Rice has 45 catches for 604 yards and three touchdowns. San Francisco wideouts Terrell Owens (age 28) and J.J. Stokes (30) have 49 catches, 627 yards and seven touchdowns between them.
After catching 83 passes for 1,139 yards and nine scores with Oakland in 2001, Rice's current numbers project to 105 catches, 1,380 yards and seven touchdowns. He's just 163 yards shy of Walter Payton's record of 21,803 all-purpose yards, and Rice's next touchdown will be his 200th a number as unfathomable as his 1,409 catches.
"I'm not blaming the 49ers," said Rice, the only receiver to catch a pass at 40. "They were going in a different direction. It was best for me and best for them. This gave me an opportunity where I could prove myself all over again."
Matter of attrition That's what the NFL is going through with its quarterbacks again. If Green Bay's top-rated passer, Brett Favre, can't recover from his sprained knee in time to face Miami on Monday night (thereby ending his record starting streak at 164 games), half of the 32 teams will have made a change at quarterback with the season only half over. Carolina, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Washington have started three quarterbacks each.
Every AFC North team has changed quarterbacks, although Cincinnati and Pittsburgh did so for poor play rather than injuries. New Orleans' Aaron Brooks is the only NFC South starter not to miss at least one start. Strangely, the eight teams in the AFC South and West have been unscathed. But stability at the most important position is no sure key to success. While the AFC West's four teams are all at .500 or better and are 20-10 combined, the AFC South is just 12-16 with Indianapolis (4-3) owning the only winning record.
Making history Three of the four players with four interceptions are linebackers: Pittsburgh's Joey Porter, San Diego's Donnie Edwards and Tampa Bay's Derrick Brooks. And Detroit's Chris Claiborne is among the 15 with three picks.
No linebacker has led the league in interceptions since Baltimore's Don Shinnick finished in a three-way tie with defensive backs Milt Davis of the Colts and Dean Derby of the Steelers with seven in 1959.

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