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Keys to the Game presented by Carmax: Season on the line as Pats head to Buffalo

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It's a huge game for the 2-4 Patriots this weekend as they look to get back on track after three-straight losses for the first time in almost two decades. The 5-2 Bills present a formidable challenge, as Buffalo is an ascending team that should see a chance make a statement win and take firm control of the division.

Coming off a loss where nothing was working, no one knows quite what to expect from the Patriots. They've produced just 18 points the last two weeks, while the defense was exposed over and over by an efficient 49ers attack that knew just where to target them. Both sides of the ball need major bounce-back games, and they'll have to do it in one of the most critical division matchups of the season.

It's rare for the Patriots to be playing a game of this magnitude so early in a season but that's how things have unfolded. A win and they're back within striking distance of a .500 record and can keep their division championship hopes alive. A fourth-straight loss and the team will be in unprecedented territory with an uncertain outlook for the rest of 2020.

For that reason it's a enormous game and one that should be easy for players and fans alike to get hyped for. Here's what the Patriots need to do to save their season and restore hope.

Ball Security

After just three giveaways in their first three games, the Patriots have a whopping 11 in their last three.

"I hope everybody that has the ball is thinking about not committing a turnover, whether that's the center, the punter, the quarterback, or receiver, or running back, or tight end or anybody else that touches the ball," said Bill Belichick this week. "So, that's our number one thing is to have ball security."

Buffalo has forced two turnovers in four of their seven games and are tied for fourth in the league with five forced fumbles. But with their own offense showing some ball security cracks in recent weeks, the turnover differential in this game will be a huge key.

Can the Patriots finally put together a turnover-free game while forcing Josh Allen into making bad throws into New England's ball-hawking secondary? Allen had a brutal first two outings against the Pats, throwing one touchdown to five interceptions. He cleaned things up in the last matchup in late-2019, avoiding any interceptions while throwing two touchdowns en route to a 102.7 QB rating.

If that Josh Allen shows up and the Patriots continue being careless with the football, this game will look a lot like the last two weeks have. Winning the turnover battle, especially in difficult weather conditions, is half the battle.

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

Ground game catalyst

On paper, the most intriguing matchup for the Patriots is their rushing attack against the Bills run defense that ranks 26th in Football Outsiders' DVOA and 21st in rushing yards allowed.

A lot of those poor rankings come after allowing 245 rushing yards to the Chiefs, while the Patriots are still without Sony Michel and now have Damien Harris appearing on the injury report. So these stats might be a bit deceiving. Still, it's the best chance the Patriots have to get their offense going by leaning into what has been the one semi-reliable part of their offense this season.

If the Patriots can find consistent success on the ground it will take some pressure off of Cam Newton and the passing offense, which has yet to show they can consistently produce. They live off of play action, which will only be effective if they can get Harris going.

Rex Burkhead can be a good chance-of-pace back, while James White continues to be a third-down specialist, but if the Patriots are looking to them to get things going on the ground they will be in trouble. That's why this key is on Harris and the power run game to be the early catalyst, setting the tone and putting the offense in position to be successful.

Have a plan for the underneath stuff

On the flip side, the Bills rushing offense is ranked 32nd in the league in DVOA and will be going against a Patriots rushing defense ranked 25th. Buffalo doesn't have the same kind of rushing attack the 49ers carved up the Patriots with, but they do have two backs in Devin Singletary and Zack Moss who can catch the ball and that's where the Bills should be expected to focus a significant portion of their attack on the Patriots defense.

Expect plenty of spread formations to get the Patriots linebackers and safeties matched up underneath against Singletary. That's the most direct route for the Bills to mimic some of what San Fran did and the Patriots better be ready to stop the run from their sub packages, but also deal with the short dumpoffs underneath.

"I think [Allen]'s less apt to just start running around and more patient, more confident to stay in the pocket and go to the second guy, go to the third guy, come back to the check down, like any quarterback who's gained two or three years of experience," said Belichick.

Keeping the dumpoffs in check and tempting Allen to push the ball downfield and into the teeth of the Patriots defense will be a direct route to keeping the Bills offense off kilter.

Bring division game energy

Everyone knows what the situation coming into this game is. The Patriots are looking up at the Bills in the standings and there's good reason to say the direction of the 2020 season hinges on this outcome.

"They're number one," admitted Devin McCourty. "It's gonna be a huge challenge for us on the road against the top team. We really got to bring our "A" game coming off three-straight losses."

The Patriots remained confident in their process this week, despite being in a tough spot. Having a second-straight week of normal practice is a big key, but as McCourty pointed out, it doesn't really matter what happens during the weekend, only what happens Sunday.

"It all comes down to Sunday," said McCourty." We can go out there and have a good week of practice but it all has to amount to playing well on Sunday."

At 2-4 the Patriots desperately need the win and they have to play with that desperation. It won't be easy being on the road, in what are expected to be rainy and windy conditions, though the atmosphere will lack the raging Bills fans, which both helps and hurts a bit, players spoke all week about the respect they have for the usual craziness that the Bills Mafia brings and missing that kind of energy. The Patriots know they'll need to bring their own energy for the full game.

Prediction

The Patriots performances over the last two weeks don't give many reasons for optimism heading to Buffalo, but things can still click and look a lot better in a hurry. That's football and this Patriots team works too hard to put forth another sub-par effort. With their backs against the wall, New England finds a way to get it done in a sloppy game marked by turnovers and special teams plays.

Patriots 16, Bills 13

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