FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – In his 99th NFL game, Heath Evans got to be a featured back again.

The New England Patriots fullback, who’s gone whole seasons without reaching double digits in carries, subbed in after Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney were banged up on Sunday night and gained 56 yards on 10 carries in a 56-10 victory over Buffalo.

It was the third most-productive game in his seven-year career.

“Everything’s opportunity,” Evans said Wednesday as the Patriots prepared to put their unbeaten record on the line this week against the Philadelphia Eagles. “You don’t grow a new arm or a new leg overnight because Coach (Bill) Belichick gave me the opportunity. My confidence has never really faltered in terms of what somebody has labeled me.”

The Patriots are 10-0 and threatening to join the 1972 Dolphins as the only teams to go undefeated for an entire season, running up big scores thanks largely to the passing connection of Tom Brady and Randy Moss. Brady has thrown for 38 touchdowns, 16 of them to Moss, to help New England win by an average margin of more than 25 points.

So they haven’t had much need for a running game, yet.

And Evans isn’t the most likely contributor.

A third round draft pick of the Seahawks in 2001, Evans has developed a reputation as a blocking back with Seattle, Miami and New England. Take away a fortnight for the injury-depleted Patriots in 2005, when he gained 158 yards on 33 carries over two weeks, Evans had averaged one carry and 3.3 yards per game in his career.

But Faulk was dinged with a hit to the head on Sunday and left the game without carrying the ball. Maroney came out, reportedly with an ankle injury, after starting the offensive onslaught with a 6-yard touchdown plunge and finished with six carries for 19 yards in all.

The injuries might not have been serious; the Patriots might have just been cautious in a 46-point victory. Faulk said Wednesday he felt fine but that the decision on whether he plays against Philadelphia on Sunday night is up to the trainers and doctors.

“I’m a competitor. I want to play regardless. But there are people who can make better decisions than we can,” he said. “You want to be out there. You want to be out there having fun with them.”

Sammy Morris was the team’s rushing leader when he was placed on injured reserve on Nov. 2. Morris ran 85 times for 384 yards and a team-leading three rushing touchdowns before he was hurt in the sixth game and left the locker room with his left arm in a sling; the team said he had a chest injury.

The Patriots didn’t need any of them while Tom Brady and Randy Moss ran up a 46-point victory over Buffalo, but Evans and Kyle Eckel filled in nicely.

Belichick noted that the role of the fullback has chanced since he first started coaching in the 1970s, going from a ball-carrier who shared the load with the halfback to someone who is primarily a blocker. But Evans is more like an old-time fullback because he can run with the ball, the coach said.

“Heath’s a versatile guy for us,” Belichick said. “Heath can block. Heath can carry the ball. He would be a natural fullback for the offenses of the ’60s and ’70s.”

An undrafted free agent from Navy who’d carried the ball 23 times in his first six NFL games, Eckel reached career highs with 10 rushes for 40 yards and a pair of first downs.

AP-ES-11-21-07 1700EST


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