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Keys to the Game presented by Carmax: Pats face division champs in primetime

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After three games away, the Patriots return home to face the 2020 AFC East champion Buffalo Bills. With New England now officially out of the playoffs, this game will be unique territory for a franchise that hasn't played a game without playoff stakes since 2000.

Will the Pats make some changes to their lineup? Bill Belichick admitted the team was considering some big picture questions this week, but appears to remain committed to Cam Newton at quarterback. There are still plenty of young players who will get some valuable experience against a Bills team that is peaking.

For this week's key though, not much changes. Based on what we saw from the 2020 Patriots, there's little secret who they are and what their keys to victory are. That's what we're leaning into, the core keys that have been the same all season.

Here are the Keys to the Game presented by Carmax!

Stop the run

Arguably the first fundamental of good defensive football, the Patriots have been trending in the wrong direction the last two weeks when it comes to stopping the run, allowing a season-high 250 rushing yards to the Dolphins after allowing 186 yards on the ground to the Rams. If teams can move the ball like that, not much else matters. The Patriots defense must bounce back if they want to have a chance in this game.

Buffalo's 190 rushing yards against the Patriots in Week 8 is still their best performance of the season on the ground, while it was just the Patriots third-highest total allowed this season. The Bills would love nothing more than to follow the same script -- let Devin Singletary and Zack Moss combine for the majority of the work, with Josh Allen chipping in with some key runs here and there.

The Patriots defense has health concerns that start with Ja'Whaun Bentley, their best second-level run stopper. They might need some extra effort from players like Terez Hall and Anfernee Jennings if Bentley is limited after leaving last week's game with an injury.

Ultimately, if they can't force Buffalo into third downs the game might be over pretty quickly.

Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch ahead of the Patriots matchup against the Buffalo Bills.

Don't beat yourself

The Patriots are 1-3 this season when having multiple turnovers but 3-1 when they don't turn the ball over at all. They need to look no further than the last matchup against the Bills that saw a Cam Newton fumble, the only giveaway of the game, cost New England a chance at knocking off Buffalo at home.

Like stopping the run, not being sloppy with the football is a fundamental key and this Patriots team cannot overcome multiple fundamental mistakes. At times, the giveaways at inopportune times have been a key feature of this year's squad.

New England is by far the least penalized team in the league with just 52, while Buffalo is the second-most penalized with 96. The two teams both had five flags thrown against them in the first matchup. Penalties are part of playing clean football and this is one spot where the Patriots could have a notable advantage.

There's a lot that goes into playing a clean game, with being safe with the ball, not taking penalties and not missing tackles atop the list. Those elements are all critical for New England and ones that they've been inconsistent at all season long.

Stick with the ground and pound

It's clear that this Patriots offense is at their most effective when they're able to run the ball. Last week, Sony Michel showed good burst in his return to the lead back role. The Pats have battled injuries all season long at the running back position, losing each of their backs for at least a short stint this season.

Can Damien Harris return against Buffalo? He had his second-best rushing game of the season, 102 yards on 16 carries with a touchdown, in the first tilt against the Bills. But do the Patriots even want to risk further injury to their breakout back?

It could once again put the spotlight on Michel, who has shown he's capable but he'll need more than 10 carries like he got against the Dolphins. Perhaps J.J. Taylor could get a more extensive look. He was back in the lineup last week for the first time since September. If the team is turning an eye to the future, incorporating Taylor with a more significant role would make sense.

No matter who it is, getting things going on the ground is vital. Finishing the game off on the ground would be even more important, but it will take a lot of good play to get to that point.

Need another specialty performance

The Patriots put two special teamers on the Pro Bowl roster this year, a testament to how New England has maximized the third phase's effectiveness this season, as they do pretty much every year. However, like last week against Miami, the Pats are not facing a pushover special teams squad like they did in LA against the Chargers.

The Bills are a team that can be every bit as effective as the Patriots, led by returner Andre Roberts and a duo of young kickers who should be around in Buffalo for a long time in Corey Bojorquez and Tyler Bass.

Getting plus field position from their returners, especially Gunner Olszewski on punt returns, would be a big boost to New England's chances, while a special teams score would be even better. Last season the Patriots rode a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown to victory against the Bills in their first matchup, they'll need a similar kind of play this year.

Prediction:

With the division clinched, Buffalo is in uncharted territory. Will they go hammer down and try to get a statement win in New England, or will they see a chance to start getting players healthy. It's a major role reversal from the last two decades. With no crowds and homefield advantage minimized this postseason, Buffalo has a lot to think about.

But so do the Patriots. If the rookies and young players get an even heavier dose of action it could cut both ways, good and bad. Of course, the silver lining to any loss now would be an improved draft position, but the Patriots aren't ones to take much overt motivation from that. They'll play hard but Buffalo just has too much and is peaking at the right time.

Bills 27, Patriots 13

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