Out of the doghouse and back in the Buffalo Bills' starting lineup, cornerback Leodis McKelvin is determined to prove himself no matter how daunting a challenge it will be to prepare for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
McKelvin can't pick and choose his opponents nor control the circumstances behind why he's risen up the depth chart. He's jumped ahead of two injured players: starter Aaron Williams and veteran backup Terrence McGee.
So if the game at New England (5-3) on Sunday marks the 2008 first-round draft pick's latest — and potentially last — chance at showing what he can do as a starter in the final year of his contract, then McKelvin's going to go out smiling.
"Yeah, the last time I played corner, I did pretty good," he said, bearing a wide grin. "I got an interception off Brady, so I'm happy about that."
Of course, it won't be easy for McKelvin or the Bills (3-5), who are 2-19 all-time against Brady and have lost 11 straight games at in Foxborough.
"Brady's a tough guy," McKelvin said. "Things are going to happen and you've just got to make sure that you're going to be there when the time comes to make the play."
The chance to play is what matters most to McKelvin, in what will mark his first start in 12 games and second since losing the starting job five weeks into last season.
"I'd say I'm playing for my future. I'm playing to keep my career going," McKelvin said. "It's very critical for me to go out there and play good."
The book on McKelvin hasn't changed much since the Bills selected him with the 11th pick out of Troy. Speedy yet undersized at 5-foot-10, McKelvin was regarded as a dynamic special teams returner, who needed work to develop as a defensive back.
In four-plus seasons, McKelvin has made his biggest mark on special teams. He's scored three touchdowns (two on punt returns) and his career punt- and kickoff-return averages top the franchise list.
This season, he's leading the NFL with an average of 19.5 yards on 13 punt returns.
His play on defense has been a different story.
McKelvin's most productive season came in 2010, when he had two interceptions and was credited with 11 passes defensed in 16 games, including 14 starts. That's close to what he's managed in his past 24 games, a stretch in which he has two interceptions and 10 passes defensed.
That's not anywhere close to meeting anyone's expectations, including his own, after McKelvin arrived in Buffalo eager to show he could be a dual threat.
"With special teams, they know I can play specials teams, but I'm a defensive player at heart," McKelvin said. "But it's not how you start, it's how you finish. And that's my goal, how I go out there and finish."
Coach Chan Gailey can appreciate how motivated McKelvin is.
"I think that Leodis has never lacked confidence," Gailey said. "I think he has a chance to go play extremely well. Hopefully, he's learned from some of the things that happened in the past."
There has been very little that's happened to crack McKelvin's confidence or upbeat personality. Most every week, he arrives at his locker with a smile on his face and humming whatever song is playing through his head phones.
"Lose confidence? That's something a cornerback is supposed to have," McKelvin said. "I mean, if you're not confident in yourself, why should you play this game?"
The biggest test of McKelvin's resilience came after the Bills squandered an 11-point lead in the final 2:06 in a 2009 season-opening 25-24 loss at New England. After the Patriots scored to cut the lead to 24-19, McKelvin took the brunt of the blame for what happened next.
Rather than taking a knee in the end zone on the ensuing kickoff, McKelvin attempted a return only to have the ball stripped from his hands. The Patriots recovered and scored three plays later.
Upon arriving at his home the next morning, McKelvin found his front lawn vandalized. Two male teens were eventually arrested, but McKelvin refused to press charges.
"Just leave it in the past," he said, when reminded of what happened. "That game was that game. This game's coming up this week, and we've got to be focused and ready to go."
Here's his chance.
"Yes, my chance," McKelvin said. "I've been waiting on the chance to go out there and perform and be the guy that I know I can be."
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