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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Time to pay (back) the Bills

New England heads to Buffalo looking to pull away even further in the AFC East.

The Patriots have never been swept in the season series against an AFC East opponent in the Tom Brady era.

But after pulling off the upset against the Jacoby Brissett-led Patriots back in Week 4, Rex Ryan's Bills host New England this Sunday with a chance to pull off the crazy-rare feat.

Of course, the 16-0 shutout of the Patriots on Oct. 2 at Gillette Stadium - the first shutout loss in the history of the facility - came under much different circumstances. Not only was the rookie third-round pick Brissett forced to start, but he was battling a thumb injury that would land him on injured reserve a few days later to undergo surgery.

Rob Gronkowski was healthy enough to catch just a single pass for 11 yards in the loss as he continued to work back from a hamstring injury.

In less than a month, things have changed mightily as Brady is back leading the Patriots high-scoring offense, the quarterback having played nearly perfect offense in his three games as he makes a run toward an MVP award playing in a mere 12 games. And Gronkowski is back in full swing as the playmaking superhero that is Gronk.

On the Buffalo side, running LeSean McCoy missed practice all week battling a hamstring injury and is doubtful. Safety Aaron Williams is also out.

Oh, and there is the little issue of the pregame scuffle that took place at Gillette Stadium last time around when Bills defensive back Robert Blanton hit both Brissett and rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell as they were doing their warmup job around the field.

Buffalo says it's ready for a fight yet again. The question, though, is whether the Bills are ready for Brady, Gronkowski and the potential output of the Patriots offense that could come between the whistles.

Here are a few keys to keep an eye on heading into Patriots vs. Bills II!

Run/pass option? - The Bills allowed Miami to churn out 256 yards on the ground last week, including 214 from Jay Ajayi. That was the same day that LeGarrette Blount ran for a season-high 127 yards in Pittsburgh in by far his best performance of the season. But there is little doubt that the greatest strength of the Patriots offense is the depth, diversity and potential of the passing attack. So, how will Josh McDaniels and New England choose to approach Ryan's defense? Will it be as balanced and run-heavy as it was to open things up against the Steelers? Will there be more focus on the passing game - assuming the first throw of the day doesn't result in a turnover? Or, most likely, is Brady going to make his checks at the line based on the personnel and scheme that Buffalo puts forth? Watching the Patriots offense evolve against a Bills defense that certainly has the capability to present some challenges - Buffalo is 8th in points and 11th in pass defense, but 27th against the run -- should be fun. 

Gronk goes home again - Coming off a solid day against a Pittsburgh team he's always produced against, Gronkowksi pursues his record-setting 69th touchdown against a Bills team he grew up rooting for. In 10 career games against Buffalo - including being a shell of himself earlier this year - Gronkowski has 10 touchdowns and four 100-yard games. He is the focal point once again of the Patriots passing attack, averaging 22 yards per reception. Smart money says Gronkowksi will continue to roll against the Bills, and if he doesn't then it should mean a lot of his other teammates are open enough to do damage. Either way, it's bad news for Buffalo.

Control Taylor - Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor had an impressive performance in the first meeting. He completed 27 of 39 passes for 246 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions for a 94.6 passer rating. He also ran five times for 28 yards to set the overall pace of the offense on the way to victory. Now, he'll be even more important with McCoy's injury. The Patriots pass rush has left something to be desired, with just 11 sacks on the year. But this is a game that's not as much about trying to get to Taylor as it is using a controlled pass rush to keep him from using his legs to make plays. The theory should go that forcing Taylor to make plays through air will put him in a battle with Brady that he's not capable of keeping pace with. Rob Ninkovich and the rest of the edge players can't let Taylor get free, nor can they let him get too comfortable. It's a fine line that Ninkovich has walked well in the past.

Pass on, Tom - Brady's work to date has been remarkable, leading the NFL in completion percentage with a 75.2 rate and with a 132.6 passer rating. He hasn't thrown an interception for a Patriots offense that's yet to throw one on the year. He's also done a nice job avoiding pressure. The Bills have the personnel to theoretically give the Patriots issues through the air. Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore are a nice tandem of cornerbacks. Lorenzo Alexander is having a breakout year leading the NFL with nine sacks, while adding three forced fumbles. The front gets Marcell Dareus back to add to a solid overall mix. Still, Brady's depth of weapons means New England should be able to throw when it wants to. Running the ball, as was the case last week, can keep games closer than maybe they should be. Getting ahead early and forcing Taylor and Co. to try to play catch-up will put a lot of pressure on the home squad. The passing game, riding Brady's hot streak, is the best way to do that.

Clean it up - Two of the worst ways to get upset on the road are through pass rush and turnovers. There is no question that the New England line needs to do a better job keeping Brady clean and comfortable. The last two weeks have seen TB12 under too much pressure. Buffalo can get after it, ranking fourth in the NFL in sacks per pass play. The challenge is obvious; Dante Scarnecchia's front needs to meet it. In terms of turnovers, Buffalo has a plus-8 differential. The Bills have six interceptions and six fumble recoveries. And they've only given the ball away four times. Clearly the Patriots were not happy with the Chris Hogan fumble to open the game last week and then Julian Edelman's giveaway on a punt return. The first step toward success in Buffalo is to play clean in terms of pass protection and ball security. It will also be important for the Patriots to have their wits about them and play cool, avoiding any cheap penalties or issues that might ignite the opposition and its fans. 

Prediction - While the Patriots have said all the right things this week, as usual, it was clear in the wake of the loss to the Bills in Week 4 that players weren't happy with the pregame fight. They also clearly have no intention of losing twice to the same team in one season, certainly not a team coached by Ryan. The emotion and motivation on Sunday should not be an issue. The Patriots are also the healthier team, with McCoy's injury once again having the Bill Belichick's squad face an opponent without its best offensive player. New England is much better and healthier than it was in Week 4. Really, there is no comparison to that game. New England should be able to run and throw on offense. Defensively it should be able to take care of backup Mike Gillislee (he does have an impressive 6.2-yard average) and then force Taylor to do more than he's capable of through the air. In the end too much falls in the Patriots favor, even on the road. New England is in line for a 35-13 win to head into the bye week in full control of not only the AFC East, but really the entire conference as a whole.

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

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