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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Bills are in the running

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The NFL’s schedule is loaded with divisional games over the final few weeks with the hopes that such contests will be heated battles with playoff ramifications.

Though that many not be the case in all examples, Sunday afternoon’s battle between the Patriots (11-3) and Bills (8-6) at Gillette Stadium accomplishes the schedule maker’s goal in many ways.

Though it has already wrapped up the AFC East title for the ninth straight year, New England is playing to take another step toward the No. 1 seed in the conference playoff picture, an inside track to which it earned with last weekend’s dramatic win in Pittsburgh.

Buffalo, in a rarity at this point in the year, is also playing for a possible playoff spot, which would be the Bills first since 1999.

Oh, and if that weren’t enough to put some drama in this Christmas Eve contest there exists the issue of Rob Gronkowski’s late hit on Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White less than a month ago in Buffalo that left the rookie in the concussion protocol and the tight end with a one-game suspension. Though Buffalo has backed off the retribution talk this week, the physicality and chippy play between these longtime rivals is worth watching.

Patriots players are certainly expecting a fight in their second meeting with the Bills in a month, but a fight in terms of a football battle and nothing beyond that.

“Week 16, it's going to be like a playoff atmosphere,” Devin McCourty said. “I don't think either team is going to need what happened last game to get them going. For all of us it's going to be much bigger than that than what happened at the end of the game. To me football is always football. Two teams trying to win a football game at the end of the season is going to be chippy. It's going to be everything from pushing and shoving to fighting for extra yards. You're going to get all of that Sunday.”

And though the Patriots have dominated the Bills for essentially the entirety of Bill Belichick’s time in New England, the teams were in a first-half dogfight on Dec. 3 in Buffalo. Sure, Gronkowski helped Tom Brady pull away for a 23-3 lead, but the Patriots certainly haven’t played their best ball in recent weeks.

The playoffs remain weeks away, but don’t tell that to either of these AFC East foes as they prepare to finish the year strong. While fans may be looking ahead to Christmas gifts and the oncoming postseason, Buffalo and New England will be slugging it out on Sunday.

Heading into this meaningful late-season matchup, here are some possible keys to what will unfold between the Patriots and Bills at Gillette.

Gronk-spiked egg nog – While many fans will already be getting into the early Christmas Eve spirit Sunday afternoon, New England’s Pro Bowl tight end Gronkowski will be looking to continue to put up huge numbers against the Bills. Before his regrettable late hit in the last meeting, Gronkowski caught nine balls for 147 yards. It was his sixth 100-yard effort in 12 career games against Buffalo, a team he grew up rooting for. He’s tallied 11 touchdowns in those contests. And he’s coming off an otherworldly effort to carry New England to victory in Pittsburgh. Many wonder if the Bills will be emotionally motivated to take it to Gronkowski seeking revenge, but the opposite may also be true. The big tight end is probably looking to hurt Buffalo on the field and the scoreboard, something he’s done so often over his career.

Taylor-made defense – Tyrod Taylor probably holds the Bills chances of pulling the upset. The Buffalo quarterback derailed his team in the first meeting with an ugly goal-line interception to Eric Lee. He’s not going to be asked to carry his team, but Taylor is going to have to make some plays in the passing game if the visitors are too hang around late. The Patriots pass defense has been the better part of the unit over the second half of the season, but Taylor does have the running ability to extend plays and freelance. Dealing with Kelvin Benjamin also creates a possible new challenge compared to the first meeting. Still, if McCourty and Co. in the back end keep Taylor to one of his many lackluster performances it would go a long way toward ensuring victory.

Run fits – The Bills are one of the best rushing teams in the NFL, ranking No. 6 in the league. The Patriots run defense ranks 26th in terms of yards allowed and dead last allowing 4.9 yards per carry. Clearly Buffalo will come in planning to the run the ball early and often, likely toward the edges of the New England front. That area is banged up – Kyle Van Noy was limited in practice, but it wouldn’t surprising if he misses another week to a calf injury – and undermanned, but has to find a way to be more competitive. LeSean McCoy had 93 yards on just 15 attempts in the first meeting. New England has allowed opponents to run at least 26 times for at least 120 yards in three straight games. Alan Branch (knee) will be out after missing practice all week. Still, Matt Patricia and his troops need to find a way to keep the Bills from controlling the game by just running it with effective regularity. It’s a tall, obvious task.

*Tom’s time – *Brady is in the midst of a mini, late-season slump. He’s thrown an interception in four-straight games, the first time that’s happened since 2013. He’s had a passer rating below 90 three straight games, something he did just twice in the first 11. He’s been hit too much. He was battling an Achilles, but that’s been removed from the injury report. Brady hasn’t found a lot of efficiency in the passing game in recent weeks to anyone other than Gronkowski. Buffalo has an impressive young rookie corner in White and a Pro bowl safety in Micah Hyde, but is 30th in sacks per pass play. Brady should have time to work and find room to hit his list of weapons that remains relatively strong with Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola and his passing backs. Given all that’s gone on in recent weeks Brady would likely very much enjoy an early gift of a big day of production against Buffalo to quiet any “fall off a cliff” critics. He’s due for a big December day.

*Finish strong – *Areas that have so often been Patriots strengths have been a bit more questionable in recent weeks. Though winning is the top priority Sunday and over the next two weeks, cleaning up those various areas would also be nice. Things like red zone play on both sides of the ball, winning more consistently on third down and stopping big plays are all key heading into the postseason. Strong work in those areas against Buffalo should lead to victory and build some added confidence for the AFC frontrunner heading toward January.

Dion’s day – With Brady and the passing game dealing with some inefficient play of late, balancing out the offense as much as might be expected would be a nice option. Dion Lewis bounced back for a solid game in Pittsburgh. He’s now had double-digit carries in eight of the last nine games, averaging 4.6 yards per carry or better in six of those. Buffalo has just the 25th run defense in the NFL, so getting Lewis his touches and production shouldn’t be hard. With Rex Burkhead sidelined to a knee injury, it could also be a game for Mike Gillislee to return to the lineup against his former team. The first-year Patriot has been inactive for the last six weeks, but Sunday may present a chance to knock the rust off and prove his worth, at least for one game. Don’t leave it all on the passing game, get the rushing attack going against Buffalo.

Prediction: Buffalo had its chance for an upset at home in early December and couldn’t take advantage. Belichick and Brady don’t often give extra chances. Coming off the emotional win in Pittsburgh many think the Patriots could suffer a letdown on Christmas Eve. But New England needs to stay on track for the No. 1 seed and knows Buffalo will be coming to fight. That should eliminate the letdown. Brady is due for a clean, efficient day through the air. Taylor just doesn’t breed confidence as a playmaker. Given that Buffalo has played a pretty solid style much of the year, the game may not be a laugher. But New England is the better team, at home with a more consistent level of execution. Gronkowksi is playing as well as he ever has against a team he loves to beat up on. Look for a pair of touchdowns for the tight end. Lewis should approach 100 yards on the ground. And the defense will do enough, slowing McCoy and keeping Taylor from going off, to pull it all together. That should equate to a 28-13 win for the home squad to send its home crowd off to holiday celebrations with some true cheer!

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

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