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Friends and family started buying tickets weeks ago. They circled Dec. 14 on their calendars. This is a big weekend inside the Starks house.

Green Bay Packers running back James Starks returns home when his team travels to play the Buffalo Bills — his childhood team — for a rare meeting at noon Sunday. With how NFL schedules work, it's a regular-season appearance Green Bay makes only once every eight years.

Starks knows this could be his only trip to Buffalo as a professional.

"There's no place like home," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Friday. "Obviously, everybody enjoys going back to their hometown, and I know this is special for James and his family. James is always smiling. His smile is bigger this week."

Starks grew up in Niagara Falls, N.Y., about 20 miles north of Buffalo. He's been inside Ralph Wilson Stadium three or four times — his last trip coming in high school, he said — but never with the view he'll get Sunday.

Western New York means everything to him. Starks led the University at Buffalo to a Mid-American Conference championship in 2008, the best season in program history. In high school, his coach was former University at Buffalo offensive lineman Joe Shifflet. As a child, Starks attended former Bills running back Thurman Thomas' youth camp.

When the Packers won the Super Bowl four seasons ago, Niagara Falls painted its massive waterfalls in green and gold lights. Starks was handed a key to the city three weeks later. At the ceremony, he wiped away tears.

This weekend, Starks doesn't expect Niagara Falls to be adorned in Packers colors.

"It's just a game," Starks said. "Next game, next competition. It ain't like the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl's a little different."

Starks said he took no offense when the Bills passed over him in the 2010 draft. They took former Clemson star C.J. Spiller with the No. 9 pick that season, while Starks was available until the sixth round.

Still, this homecoming offers a chance to show the local team what it missed, whether or not Starks sees the opportunity as motivation.

"Every organization does what they please," Starks said. "That wasn't going to stop me from going where I needed to go. I think God had a plan for my life. It just didn't go that way. That's not where he wanted me at that specific moment. So I think that's why that happened."

Starks has found a home in Green Bay. This week, everything appears to be aligning for him to have an impact.

The backup tailback had a season-high 75 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown Monday, helping lead the Packers to a win against the Atlanta Falcons. He also caught two passes for 26 yards, surpassing 100 total yards for the only time this season.

Coupled with starter Eddie Lacy's 106 total yards and two touchdowns, Starks' emergence gave the Packers a two-tailback punch their offense has often lacked this fall.

"It's always cool watching him play," Lacy said. "He's explosive, he makes moves that I can't and he does it a lot faster, so it's always cool to see that. I think going back to Buffalo, he's definitely looking forward to that. Just too happy to play in front of his family."

Starks showed his speed on the perimeter Monday. His burst through the hole was rare for this point in the season. He had good reason to look fresh.

In 13 games, Starks has carried the ball only 69 times. He's had 20 fewer rushes than last season, when he also played 13 games. In 2011, Starks had 133 carries in 13 games, leading into an injury-shortened 2012 season.

It's a good week for fresh legs. Lacy has been limited in practice with a bruised hip, something he said diminishes his power when running downhill. If Starks gets more of a workload this week, he'll have the full confidence of his coach.

"He'll go out and play like he always does," McCarthy said. "James is very consistent in his approach and his energy level, and the way he approaches the game."

McCarthy said he'd be concerned with how some payers would handle a homecoming. Not Starks. Even when he was younger, the fifth-year running back has shown a veteran's focus, an ability to come through in important games. Remember, his 315 yards on 81 carries through the 2010 playoffs were vital to Green Bay's run to a Super Bowl title.

No, Sunday isn't the Super Bowl. The game is important — with a win, Green Bay stays in the chase for home-field advantage in the playoffs — but no more significant than any other week.

Except, for Starks, it means a little more.

"To have a big game would mean everything," Starks said Friday. "You know what I'm saying? I think regardless of just being home. Just to continue doing well and to continue the little rhythm I got going, it'll carry over going into the rest of the season.

"I'm going to enjoy myself. I always enjoy myself. It'll be fun for me."

— rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.

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