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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: At home in Buffalo

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Not long ago a Google prank resulted in the search engine telling the world that Tom Brady owned the Jets.

In reality, though, it could be argued that the Patriots quarterback has taken possession of another AFC East rival, the Bills.

With New England (9-2) preparing this week for Sunday’s trip to Buffalo (6-5), plenty of interesting career achievement notes came out regarding just how dominant Brady’s Patriots have been over the Bills, especially at New Era Field.

For example, with a win on Sunday Brady will tie former Buffalo and New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe for third-most wins in the history of the Bills home field, trailing only Jim Kelly and Joe Ferguson.

And with three or more touchdowns Brady – playing at what was formerly Ralph Wilson Stadium just once a season – would accumulate the third-most touchdown passes in the history of New Era Field.

Brady is 13-2 in Buffalo for his career, while going 26-3 against the Bills overall since 2001. His 26 wins equal the number Brett Favre had over the Lions for the most by any quarterback against any team in NFL history. (Of course Brady does have a still-impressive 24 wins against the Jets!)

Things have been especially dominant of late on trips to New Era Field, with Brady having thrown at least three touchdown passes with no interceptions in each of his last travels to Western New York, with a passer rating of 105 or better in each of those three wins.

Now, certainly Bills fans hope that the culture and tide is changing in Buffalo under first-year head coach Sean McDermott. The fact that a team that hasn’t seen the postseason since 1999 is still competing for a playoff spot in the month of December is a nice step in the right direction.

As much as Brady and Bill Belichick’s teams have dominated the Bills over the years, the coach sounded impressed with what he’s seen from the squad of late under its new leadership. And we all know the Patriots boss worries far more about the here-and-now than any history of success.

“I think that Coach McDermott has done a real good job with this team,” Belichick said this week. “They're playing extremely well, got a really good team, a lot of veteran players that play very good fundamentally. They're very sound. They do a lot of things well. They run the ball well. They play good defense. They're good in the kicking game. They obviously do a good great job with takeaways and turnovers. Ball security is going to be a huge issue for us in this game.

“I'd say that they play with a lot of passion. They play smart football. They don't give you anything. There's not a lot of opportunities there when you look on the film like 'Oh, this looks good. That looks good.' You're going to have to earn everything you get from this team. They play very competitively. They have a lot of tough football players, guys that play hard, that work hard, that are physical.”

Of course Belichick says similar things about many of his team’s upcoming opponents. And it’s hard to ignore the history of Brady and the Patriots taking care of business against Buffalo – regardless of the location, conditions or details of the two teams in each individual matchup.

Heading into the second of three straight AFC East games and the first of three-straight road games, here are some potential keys to Sunday’s battle with the Bills in Buffalo.

Gronk’s hometown home away from home – Brady may own the Bills – again, a win Sunday, his 27th against Buffalo, will be the most by any quarterback over one team in NFL history – but his tight end has had almost as impressive a track record against the team. After growing up rooting for his hometown Bills, Gronkowksi has spent his career beating up on the team. Gronkowski has 11 touchdowns in 11 games against the Bills, including seven scores in six games in Buffalo. The big tight end also has five 100-yard games against Buffalo. He’s coming off a two-TD performance against Miami and as long as he’s not needed to provide extra help too often in pass protection should be in line for another big day against a lackluster Buffalo pass defense.

*Stop the Bills stampede – *The Bills want and need to run the football. They have the potential to get the job done, even if LeSean McCoy is averaging just 3.9 yards a carry on the season. New England’s run defense got Malcom Brown back in the mix last week, helping the front hold an opponent to less than 100 yards on the ground for the first time in five games. Still, there are plenty of questions about the run defense’s ability to be stout up the middle and solid on the edge. Beyond McCoy, the unit must deal with quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s ability as a runner, the dual-threat having run for 300-plus yards, a 4.6-yard average and three touchdowns on the season. McCoy and Taylor are a dangerous running combination. The Patriots defense up front has been too porous. That’s a bad combination for New England and could provide the opening Buffalo needs to keep the game competitive.

Right tackle, right approach – The Patriots are dealing with plenty of injuries, just like the rest of the league. Maybe the most pressing issue this week is the right tackle spot. Marcus Cannon was absent from the practice field once again and won’t play in Buffalo. Veteran fill-in LaAdrian Waddle did not finish last week’s game, was in a walking boot and was limited this week. Cameron Fleming gave up a sack on his first snap against Miami and is the third option at the position for a reason. If he has to start or even come on for Waddle for extended periods it could alter the way the Patriots approach things offensively. Brady has been hit too often. Dropping back behind Fleming and holding onto the ball regularly is probably not a good idea. The health at right tackle – and Brady getting hit eight times last week before missing practice for the second straight Wednesday – combined with the Bills allowing 4.1 yards per carry as a middling run defense could call for more running from the Patriots. Dion Lewis has done a nice job since taking over as the lead back, including his first 100-yard effort against Miami. The right tackle spot and finding the right (maybe balanced?) approach on offense will be key on Sunday afternoon. And if both teams use a run-heavy approach it will naturally keep the scoring down.

Ball security – The Bills have 12 interceptions on the season, tied for fifth-most in the NFL. They are tied for the fifth-most takeaways and are tied for sixth in turnover differential. When Buffalo is at its best the team is taking advantage of turnovers and taking care of the ball. Belichick emphasized his team’s need to take care of the ball because beyond the running game, turnovers are the best way for the Bills to challenge New England. Now, the Patriots have played clean more often than not this fall. Last week’s errant shotgun snap was more of an aberration, but ball security – including on special teams – must be a focal point.

Prediction: History says the Patriots will win in Buffalo. Vegas says the Patriots will win in Buffalo. Recent trends from the New England offense and defense say the Patriots will win in Buffalo. Yet injuries and depth issues for the visitors as well as some matchup concerns – Buffalo’s ability to run vs. New England suspect run defense – point to the possibility that this AFC East contest could be a more competitive battle than some the Patriots recent matchups with the Dolphins, Raiders and Broncos. Still, Brady and Gronkowski’s dominance in Buffalo should continue as both have been playing extremely well. Will Buffalo run for 150-plus yards? Maybe. But running alone isn’t going to beat the Patriots. The Bills would also likely have to get a few turnovers or big plays in the kicking game. The guess is here is that those game-changing, upset-fueling issues never come to fruition for the home team. It may be a struggle. It may be in doubt in the second half. But New England will come away with a 24-20 victory to extend its winning streak, and its longstanding dominance over the Bills.

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

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