Regardless of what happens on Sunday afternoon in Foxborough against the Bills (1-2), the Patriots will finish Tom Brady's four-game Deflategate suspension sitting atop the AFC East.
But what better way to welcome TB12 back to work at Gillette Stadium Monday than with an undefeated record?
That's the goal at hand for Bill Belichick's team this week, dealing with uncertainty yet again at the quarterback position while trying to maintain the complementary winning ways that have been the story to the start of the 2016 season.
While the Patriots have found a way to win even while dealing with injuries to young fill-in quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo (AC sprain in his right shoulder) and Jacoby Brissett (right thumb), Rex Ryan and the Bills just got over the hump of victory last Sunday with an impressive, run-heavy win over the Cardinals in Buffalo.
Each team will look to keep the momentum rolling on Sunday afternoon in what could be a wet environment.
Buffalo has the chance to pull to .500 against a Brady-less Patriots squad, although beating New England has been a tall task for the Bills over the last decade-plus. Belichick's Patriots have won 14 of 15 meetings with Buffalo dating back to 2001 in Foxborough, the only loss coming in the meaningless season finale of 2014 that saw the then-rookie Garoppolo play the second half. That's also the only loss at Gillette for the Patriots in the last 22 games against AFC East foes.
Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 4 matchup with the Bills.
But, that doesn't mean it will be easy for New England. Even in losing the Bills have put up a fight over the years, with six of the last seven meetings being decided by a single score. Ryan's team certainly has the horses to play a competitive game on the road given its strengths on defense, especially in the back end, and running the ball, which has long been the coach's preferred style of play.
And the uncertainty at quarterback remains an issue. Garoppolo certainly would bring a more diverse game plan to his return, while asking Brissett to deal with Ryan's schemes would be a grand challenge for the third-round rookie.
All that in mind, here are a few keys to another intriguing battle between Belichick and Ryan, between the Patriots and Bills.
Jimmy meets Bills? - Signs this week have pointed to the possibility of Garoppolo returning to face the Bills, what might be his last chance to start in New England with Brady's own return on the horizon. The third-year fill-in, who leads the NFL in passer rating, threw the ball in practice in front of the media, though he was technically limited all week. He spoke with the media and seemed up-beat. Given Ryan's unpredictability and potential to throw a lot at any quarterback, getting Garoppolo on the field would be a significant positive for the Patriots. He has more experience in the offense and in what he's seen from NFL defenses than Brissett has at this very early point in his young career. Assuming he's healthy enough to make throws, Garoppolo can run a far more traditional Patriots passing attack. That's far from a guarantee of success against a solid Bills secondary, but it would be a first step toward a potential winning formula.
Run D, must see - New England's run defense has been solid to open the year. Aside from one 45-yard David Johnson run in the opener, the Patriots are allowing 3.7 yards a carry and have allowed only three other runs over 10 yards through three games. Alan Branch and Malcom Brown have done the job up front. Jamie Collins was a beast last week with 14 tackles. Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard and others have set the edge. All that must continue against LeSean McCoy and a Bills ground game that's coming off 200-plus yards in the win over Arizona. McCoy is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and, as Belichick puts it, is "as good as it gets." Like Johnson, he can make would-be tacklers look bad and make things happen on his own. Collins will be a key in the run defense, especially if Dont'a Hightower continues to miss time to a knee injury. But the rest of the front and the secondary will also be leaned on because beyond McCoy the group needs to deal with the running ability of Tyrod Taylor, who averages 7 yards on 16 attempts, including a 49-yard run last week. The Bills want to run the ball much more than they want to throw it. They run the ball much better than they throw it. That's the clear and obvious challenge for a Patriots defense that would seem to be up to the task, but still must prove it.
Control the rush - Obviously lots of Taylor runs come on pass plays that break down. That's where the Patriots controlled pass rush comes in. It's an area where New England has had plenty of success in recent years against athletic quarterbacks, though it will come yet again without Rob Ninkovich, who's serving the final week of his own suspension. Still, Long, Sheard and the rest have proven themselves more than capable of getting the job done on the edge through three games. That means their rushes will focus on keeping Taylor in the pocket with an eye on forcing him to make as many plays with his arm as with his legs. Taylor has thrown for just 527 yards this season with a lackluster 83.6 rating, 155 of those yards coming on two big plays. If he can't run his accuracy is questionable - he's completing just 61 percent of his passes - and Taylor has a lot he still needs to prove as a starting-caliber passer. The Patriots will work to keep him in the pocket and to keep him from hitting big plays, especially without injured receivers Sammy Watkins and Greg Salas.
So fresh and so clean - One of the Patriots advantages this season is one they share with the Bills in this contest - turnovers. New England blew out the Texans last Thursday night thanks to key takeaways on kickoff coverage. The Patriots are tied for fifth in the NFL with a plus-4 turnover differential having turned the ball over just three times on the year. That's impressive. But, Buffalo is tied for third in the league with a plus-5 differential having turned the ball over just twice in three games. If both teams can continue to play relatively clean football it will make the battle that much more interesting and competitive. But, both defenses are clearly capable of forcing their opponent into mistakes. Whichever one can live up to that potential will have a leg up in Sunday's action. Clearly, Ryan will be looking to dial up some coverages and blitzes to lead either Garoppolo or Brissett, who are both listed as questionable, into mistakes and turnovers. Avoiding that will be key for the young passers yet again. That will be a first step toward one of them picking up another surprising victory early in their career.
One more run- LeGarrette Blount earned AFC Offensive Player of the Month honors as the NFL's leading rusher through three weeks of action. That production has helped the Patriots stay balanced on offense with young quarterbacks leading the way. Blount has been his typical self, wearing down defenses early with limited production before breaking off long runs late in wins. But can he continue to do that against a Buffalo defense that's allowing just 3.4 yards per carry on the season? That's the challenge for Blount and the Patriots offensive line that has been a pleasant surprise to open the new season. Or, might Belichick use a slightly different game plan with more sub-runs for James White? Somehow or way the Patriots will need to have some semblance of a running game against a Kyle Williams-led Bills defensive front. It's another test for the young interior New England offensive line, in particular.
Prediction - While we won't know for sure until late Sunday morning, it feels like Garoppolo may return to the lineup against the Bills. There could also be the chance that both young quarterbacks see snaps against Buffalo, putting the Ryan-led defense in the spot of having to make plenty of in-game adjustments based on the guy under center each play or series. Really, though, the game would seem to come down to two key aspects: can the Patriots stop the Bills running game and will New England continue to avoid turnovers? If those things happen it's really hard to envision the Bills pulling off the upset in Foxborough, something that just doesn't happen for AFC East opponents. Beyond Garoppolo's potential return, Rob Gronkowski might be the wild card on offense. Big No. 87 knocked the rust off last week and could be in line for an expanded role in the passing game against the team he grew up watching, a team he's had a lot of success against in the past. The Patriots are playing solid football in all three phases right now and there is no reason to expect that to come to an end against a Buffalo team with plenty of its own issues. Look for a solid 24-13 Patriots victory that will once again see game-winning plays in all three phases. Expect Gronkowski to find the end zone and the defense to frustrate Taylor. The Patriots should move to 4-0 on the year with a Hall of Famer ready to walk back in the door at Gillette Stadium. Much like the store at Patriot Place says, Life is Good.
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