FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – The New England Patriots’ much-maligned receivers are starting to earn their keep.

With Doug Gabriel and rookie Chad Jackson catching touchdown passes, the Patriots took to the air to beat the Buffalo Bills, 28-6, on Sunday. It was a reversal of the teams’ first meeting, when the Patriots’ running backs shouldered most of the offensive load in a 19-17 win on Sept. 10.

This time Gabriel, Jackson, Reche Caldwell and Troy Brown combined for 11 catches for 123 yards. It was their second-highest output of the season. In a Sept. 24 loss to Denver, the receivers caught 13 passes for 152 yards, but much of that production came late against a defense that was playing soft to protect a big lead.

In the opener, the Patriots’ receivers combined for four catches for 51 yards and a touchdown, while the backs accounted for 219 of the team’s 319 yards.

“I think we’ve improved in the passing game over the last several weeks,” coach Bill Belichick said. “I hope we have with all the meetings and practices and walkthroughs that we’ve had. I think we’re executing some things better in the passing game better than we were two weeks ago, three weeks ago, the first time we played Buffalo.

“That being said, I still think there’s a lot of room for growth. There are a lot of things to work on. But I think we’re headed in the right direction. We’ve made progress.”

The Patriots have been searching all season for reliable targets to replace Deion Branch, who was traded to Seattle after a contract dispute, and David Givens, who signed with Tennessee as a free agent. Those two were key contributors to the Patriots’ back-to-back Super Bowl championships after the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

New England has almost completely overhauled the receiving corps with Brown, a 14-year veteran, the lone holdover from last year. Gabriel was acquired in a trade the week before the season, and Jackson missed almost all of training camp with a hamstring injury.

Tom Brady’s numbers have suffered because of the changeover. The two-time Super Bowl MVP entered the game as the league’s 16th-rated quarterback, but he completed 18 of 27 for 195 yards and two scores for his highest passer rating of the season (112.4). Jackson had a 35-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter, and Gabriel added a 31-yard reception in the fourth quarter. Both came on deep throws – a part of the offense that Brady said has been missing. The Patriots had only two other passing plays of 30-plus yards in their first five games. Both of those had gone to tight end Benjamin Watson.

“I think those plays ended up going where they did because of where the defense played,” Belichick said. “Had (Buffalo) played it differently, the ball probably would have gone somewhere else. I don’t want to encourage (Brady) to throw it down (the field) just to throw it down there.”

Belichick had no update on the condition of three players who were injured in the Bills game – defensive end Richard Seymour (left elbow), safety Eugene Wilson (hamstring) and guard Stephen Neal (undisclosed).

AP-ES-10-23-06 1911EDT

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