Star wideouts at crossroads

Randy Moss (Getty Images)

For years, Randy Moss and T.O. have dominated. This Sunday, the dynamic wide receivers will meet under strange circumstances. While Owens has struggled most of this season with his new team, Moss is fresh off a one-catch clunker...

They may be on the back nine of their careers. But all decade, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens have revolutionized the wide receiver position.

This weekend, they'll meet. The 36-year old Owens and the 32-year old Moss. Their careers have gyrated through never-ending up's and down's -- leading right up to this matchup. Neither receiver heads into this game on a high note.

Just don't expect New England head coach Bill Belichick to be caught snoozing on Owens. To Belichick, T.O. remains a game-planning nightmare. He has seen more than enough to know that Owens can still combust at any moment.

"Ask Jacksonville, ask Miami," said Belichick on a conference call. "He does a great job on the vertical deep routes. He's obviously big and fast and he can go up and get the ball. But he's also very good on the underneath routes, like what happened last week on a catch-and-run play where he caught the ball underneath, broke a couple tackles, and got the ball in the end zone. He's dangerous."

After inking a one-year, $6.5 million contract, Owens is on pace for his worst statistical season in a decade. Inept quarterback play and a Band-Aided-together offensive line haven't helped. For T.O., it has been a season to forget.

For Moss, a week to forget.

The Patriots' wideout hit an awkward, new low last week. In New England's 20-10 win over Carolina, Moss only had one reception for 16 yards. More telling, was how he played. Moss didn't go after the ball on Tom Brady's interception, had one fumble and ran routes half-heartedly.

After the game, Carolina players didn't mince words. Cornerback Chris Gamble said Moss "shut it down."

The reason seemed obvious. Four days prior, Belichick send Moss home for being late to practice. Still, Belichick was quick to come to Moss' defense. For a coach that sidesteps criticism instinctively, his message spoke volumes.

"My response would be that's a lot of conversation coming from a team that just lost another game," Belichick said.

Either way, New England sorely needs a win this weekend.

Both the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets are nipping at its heels, one game back. Clearly, the Patriots will need Moss to step up at Ralph Wilson Stadium Sunday. Buffalo's secondary has played at a high level all season, leading the NFL in interceptions (25). Moss has haunted the Bills. In five games against Buffalo he has 447 yards and five touchdowns.

This is probably Buffalo's best shot at shutting Moss down. The secondary is playing at an all-pro level. Cornerbacks Terrence McGee and Drayton Florence have been air-tight and safeties Jairus Byrd and George Wilson have been in continuous attack mode. The duo has 13 combined picks.

Moss didn't cost New England last week. But more aloof and disinterested efforts could sink the Pats out of the playoffs for a second straight season.

Players and coaches have all come to Moss' defense for a late-season rally. Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio was no different. The Patriots hope it was nothing but a temporary funk.

"He's been one of our most consistent players and I think just like anybody on our club – and you can go through probably any particular player and earmark a few plays – but everybody has some good plays and everybody has some bad plays," Caserio said.

"The reality is this year, for Randy, in terms of production, in terms of what he's done for this team, is really no different than what it's been in his career."

Which is true. Moss has 1,074 yards and nine touchdowns. Unlike T.O., he hasn't faded this season. Owens has 705 yards and four touchdowns.

All talk all week will undoubtedly stalk Moss. But remember, Owens has always relished this matchup. Before playing Moss last season, he left him a friendly message..

Unlike then, his team is out of the playoff chase. Sunday is all about pride for the Bills and Owens. Odds are, Owens will not be back with Buffalo next season. A December heavyweight knockout over Moss could be his defining moment in Western New York.

And, of course, there is monetary motivation. Owens is playing for a payday. Each of Buffalo's final three games are vital job interviews for Owens. Time is running out to prove teams he is still an elite receiver.

One person he doesn't need to do any proving to is Belichick. With Moss hogging the headlines, Belichick isn't forgetting about the "Original 81."

After listing several of T.O.'s highlights this season, he assured, "I think he's still got plenty of skill."

This weekend, two star receivers at a crossroads will take center stage.

thdunne@gmail.com

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