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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by Carmax: Week 4 - Patriots at Bills

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The 3-0 Patriots head to Buffalo this weekend to take on the 3-0 Bills in a divisional match up of two undefeated teams that finally has some potential to be an exciting game. After two weeks of beating up on the fully-rebuilding Dolphins and Darnold-less Jets, the Patriots face a challenging defense and a promising young quarterback. It's not exactly Brady vs. Manning, but Buffalo is a fantastic environment featuring some of the most passionate fans in the NFL and at this point, we'll take what we can get.

The Patriots defense has been the story through three games as they have only allowed a single field goal. They lead the NFL in every major statistical category, including yards and points, while also topping Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings both against the pass and the run. It's been a long time since the Pats have played defense like this, and even back in the heart of the first dynasty they weren't quite as dominant as they've been through three games in 2019.

Meanwhile, the offense has made it work despite a number of significant injuries and a rotating cast of weaponry. They're fifth in yards and second in points, despite multiple new faces along the offensive line and a rushing attack that is still well behind where they were last season. The unflappable constant? Tom Brady, who continues to play at an elite level at age 42 no matter who's blocking for him, taking his hand offs or catching his passes.

The Bills defense should provide a stiff challenge for the Patriots offense. In a hostile environment, with the health of Julian Edelman in question, the Patriots offense will learn a lot about themselves this weekend. The good news is that their defense should keep Josh Allen and the Bills offense in check and keep the team within striking distance.

Here are the Keys to the Starting Lineup and what the Patriots need to do to complete a three-game AFC East sweep and move to 4-0.

Contain and Finish Josh Allen

Allen does a lot of damage running the ball and the Bills have a specific set of plays designed for that exact purpose. The Patriots should employ a similar game plan to that which they use against Ben Roethlisberger - keep Allen in the pocket and slowly collapse around him. Allen has good size and strength, so bringing him to the ground once they get to him will be vital. What can't happen is allowing Allen to squirt out of the pocket and make plays with his legs. He does have a penchant for mistakes later in downs, tossing up ill-advised passes and with New England's ball-hawking secondary, forcing him into trying those throws is far preferable to letting him tuck it and start galloping downfield. If the Bills are to put up points against this Patriots defense it will require Allen makes plays with his arm from the pocket. The Bills could look to the screen game to help mitigate this. Brian Daboll should have a good sense of what's coming and have a plan to help Allen make quick, easy throws. That's why the Patriots linebackers will be vital when it comes to deciphering misdirection and getting to the ball when it's not a clear dropback.

Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 4 matchup against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field on Sunday, September 29, 2019.

Offensive Line Synergy

The Patriots ground game ranks 20th in yards and 18th in rushing DVOA, the clear weakness of the team and lower than they've ranked in over a decade. Still, it's only been three games and there's been plenty in flux along the offensive line and at tight end, the key features of the ground attack. But here we are in Week 4, a time when the blocking coordination should start to look a lot better. That much time in the Dante Scarnecchia School for Offensive Linemen has to start paying off at some point and that's where the rushing success will start. Buffalo has a stout run-stopping front and there shouldn't be overwhelming optimism this is the week the Pats start running the ball with authority again. But their success should dramatically improve once the new-look offensive line gets in sync and even against a good run defense that is very possible. The Patriots could need the ground game this week, especially if Julian Edelman is out or limited.

New Lethal Weapons

This could be a Patriots offense relying on downfield passes to Josh Gordon with Phillip Dorsett as the primary chain-mover role, and perhaps Jakobi Meyers stepping into a significant role. Who knows what, if anything, to expect out of the tight end position. That leaves James White as the x-factor, he had 10 catches for 79 yards last year in Buffalo and could be in for a similar workload this year. But the spotlight will be on Dorsett and Meyers to step up. Dorsett has been a reliable third option, grabbing three long touchdowns this season, but can he be the go-to guy, especially on third down when he's getting significant attention from a good cornerback like Tre'Davious White? It's never been Dorsett's specialty, but the Pats offense could need him more than ever in this game if Edelman's a no-go. White can only do so much, and while he'll be a key for the offense, the receivers are going to have to step up to keep the offense on time.

Finish Strong

Expect the Bills to come out with great energy, making a fast start difficult for the Pats' offense. That's why it's reasonable to expect this game to be a defensive stalemate in the first half. The Bills have the pieces to make an Edelman-less offense look pedestrian and even if Edelman plays he's likely to be less than 100 percent. There's good reason to believe the Pats will rest him with the long haul in mind. So there might not be much scoring early on and the Pats offense could very well look impotent early on. But what do the Patriots do best? Adjust, and that's why finishing strong is the biggest of all keys. It's likely this game will have to be won in the second half, in a contest similar to 2013's season-opener in Buffalo, a back-and-forth affair that required a closing-second Gostkowski field goal to squeak out a 23-21 win.

Prediction

It's not hard to predict the Patriots defense will be all over Allen and the Bills offense early and often, but how well the Patriots offense can move the ball and put up points depends heavily on Julian Edelman's status. With Edelman, the Pats might just jump out to an early lead and never look back. Without him, it could very well be a 60-minute defensive struggle that needs to be won in the final minutes unless the run game finds new life and the second-level receivers step up to new levels.

Nobody does more with less than the Patriots and it's still a good bet that they get the job done one way or another, even if they don't earn much in offensive style points.

Patriots 17, Bills 9

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