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Keys to the Starting Lineup present by CarMax: Pats execution beats Buffalo emotion

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In many ways, the Patriots (5-2) and Bills are (2-5) AFC East opposites.

New England heads into Monday night’s battle in Buffalo sitting atop the division thanks to an offense that’s rounded into form as the season has progressed through its current four-game winning streak. Bill Belichick’s team has topped 38 points in four straight games and ranks fourth in the league in points per game, thanks to its 214 points in seven contests.

The home squad in this matchup, has a borderline historically-bad offense that has scored just 81 points this season, scoring five or fewer points in three of seven games and yet to put up more than 27 in any one contest.

As his targets have come together, Tom Brady has begun to hit his stride in the passing game as he prepares for a Bills team that he’s beaten an NFL-record 28 times in his career.

Buffalo, on the other hand, will start journeyman veteran Derek Anderson (first-round pick Josh Allen remains sidelined with an elbow issue) to guide a passing attack that has a combined team passer rating of just 48.8 this fall with three touchdown passes compared to 12 interceptions.

Buffalo’s offense ranks 31st or 32nd in nine of the 17 categories the NFL keeps track of in its league stats packet, including yards (31), passing net yards (32), sacks allowed per pass play (32), third down efficiency (31) and, of course, points (32).

Conversely, though, while the Patriots defense is the struggling, lesser unit in New England – Brian Flores troops rank 24th or worse in 10 of 19 NFL stats categories -- the Bills defense has the tools and production to at least put up a fight. Buffalo is competitive in areas like yards, sacks and, most importantly, points allowed (16). While the Bills offense can barely get out of its own way, never mind get past the opposing defense to the goal line, the team’s defense fields viable talents like veteran pass rusher Jerry Hughes, rookie linebacker Tremaine Edwards and impressive second-year cornerback Tre’Davious White.

Of course, as we’ve seen for two decades, the Patriots have almost always had the Bills number. And as we’ve seen more often than not this season, not just in New England’s games but around the NFL, the outcome is very much dependent on offensive success and scoring lots of points. Defense, in many ways, has been marginalized.

Interestingly one of the factors Belichick and his players have fixated on this week is the so-called Bills Mafia, the passionate home crowd New England will have to deal with in the unique environment that is Monday night in Buffalo.

“It’s obviously going to be negative energy towards us but you’re talking about Monday Night Football, in Buffalo, for a division game. I think one thing I’ve learned here is every time we go on the road to play a team in a big game, it changes for that team,” Devin McCourty said. “So like it’s not like they’re coming in here 2-5 like, ‘Let’s get this game over with.’ They’re like, ‘This is where we turn our season around. We beat the Patriots on Monday Night Football, we turn it around.’ Being 2-5 and 5-2 in this league, it’s different but you go on a winning streak, you have a totally different season. I think for us, we understand that and I think people only look at records but playing here and playing in Buffalo before, like I know that’s not going to be a game where we come in and it’s like the stadium’s half-empty. It’s not going to be like that. When we get there, that stadium’s going to be packed, we’re going to be getting booed, we’re going to get the middle fingers. It’s going to be a high-energy atmosphere.”

But a rowdy crowd and emotion can only do so much, at some point football is about execution on the field. That’s an area the Bills have struggled mightily in this fall, especially on offense. And the Patriots have been building on positive execution of late.

So as Brady, Rob Gronkowski and the rest of the Patriots prepare to continue to add to their long time domination over the Bills, here are some keys to another prime time affair for New England.

Possession is nine-tenths of the win – One of the few areas of relative strength for the Bills is takeaways. Buffalo has 12 takeaways this season, with five interceptions and seven fumble recoveries. New England has turned the ball over a little more often than we’re used to, with 13 giveaways in the first seven games. By comparison, the Patriots had just 12 giveaways all of last season. Practically the only way that the Bills are likely to stay in this game is through turnovers, which was the key to their massive upset win in Minnesota earlier this season. Brady and Co. need to be better than that.

Kicking it up a notch – Even with Cordarrelle Patterson’s fumble, the New England special teams units were a big positive in last Sunday’s win in Buffalo. That included Patterson’s return for a touchdown and obviously Dont’a Hightower’s blocked punt leading to Kyle Van Noy’s score. It’s been a somewhat tough year in terms of kickoff coverage, but the return games are beginning to pay dividends. More often than not the kicking game has been a consistent strength for the Patriots over the years. Keeping the success going on special teams would be a good way to ensure that Buffalo can’t overcome offensive ineptitude with big plays or points in the kicking game. Joe Judge’s troops probably don’t have to score touchdowns this week, but they need to make sure they don’t give them up to a Bills team that hasn’t been great in the kicking game so far this season.

Throwing it out there – The Bills have a pretty good pass defense, ranking No. 4 in the NFL thanks to talent up front and in the back end. Normally, New England might want to run early to open things up and balance out the attack. But with Sony Michel missing practice to a knee injury suffered early in Chicago, the ground options are pretty limited. James White is carrying a huge load in the passing game and Kenjon Barner isn’t really a proven option to run. So, this feels like a game where Brady will be asked to throw early and often to carry the offense, even against a decent pass defense.

If not now, then when? – This should be a week for the Patriots defense to feel good and pick up some positive momentum. Anderson is a journeyman who’s thrown three interceptions in just 31 pass attempts this season. He may or may not be without running back LeSean McCoy who’s dealing with a concussion and is averaging a mere 3.9 yards per carry. The Bills have struggled to run the ball most of the year. They have certainly struggled to throw the ball. New England has had its issues in coverage, pass rush and run defense at various times. But, Monday night is a time to show some improvement, take advantage of a lesser foe and take a step in the right direction. If the unit can’t find a way to find more success this week then the question will really begin. Pick off passes, get to Anderson (Trey Flowers breakout game?), have fun and do the things that good defenses do against bad offenses.

Prediction: To put it frankly, the Bills are probably worse than their 2-5 record. They are borderline historically bad on offense right now. The Patriots have shown improvement on both offense and special teams, even while dealing with health/depth questions at running back and tight end. New England has pretty much owned Buffalo over the years and is a heavy favorite to do so again on Monday night. Brady should be able to find the likes of Julian Edelman, James White, Josh Gordon and, hopefully, a returning Gronkowksi who has owned the Bills in his own right over the years. Buffalo’s defense is far from terrible, but the Bills lack of offense is alarming. New England has scored 38-plus in four straight games, including exactly 38 in three of those contests. We’ll go with a similar score this week as the Patriots get the 38-16 win over a Bills team that may just be the worst in the NFL. Whether it’s true improvement or fool’s gold, New England’s defense will feel better about itself come Tuesday morning.

What do you think of our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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