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Unfiltered Notebook 12/18: Turnovers will again be a critical factor in Patriots-Bills sequel

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There's no secret that the Patriots and Bills are fueled by their defenses and a big part of that is their respective ability to take the ball away.

The Patriots are an astounding +24 in turnover ratio, tops in the league by a large margin, while the Bills are ranked 10th with a +5 differential. All signs are pointing toward this being a game where turnovers will play a major, if not the deciding, factor.

In the first matchup, the Bills offense had four turnovers to the Patriots one, none bigger than the J.C.-Jackson-blocked punt which Matthew Slater recovered for the first touchdown of his career and the deciding points in what would be a six-point New England win. Buffalo handed New England the game that day with sloppy ball security but things have been different in recent weeks.

After starting the season with 11 turnovers in their first five games, the Bills have just five turnovers in their last nine games. The Bills defense has similarly improved, forcing 10 takeaways in their last five games, including five in their last game against the Steelers alone. With their offense playing safer with the ball, while their defense is taking it away more, it's a winning formula for a Bills team that will make the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

"They don't give up big plays and they capitalize on your mistakes," said James White of the Bills defense. "It will be important for us to protect the football, take what they give us and we'll get our opportunities to make plays down the field – got to capitalize on those too. It will be a great challenge, I think protecting the football will be a huge thing for us."

Protecting the football is always important, but in a game featuring two of the best defenses in the league it becomes even more critical.

For Josh Allen it's not interceptions that are the problem -- he has just two in his last nine games. No, it's the fumbles that Allen struggles with. He has 14 on the season, though he's lost just four of them. In that same nine-game stretch with only two interceptions, he has nine fumbles, losing two of them. Facing a Patriots defense that has forced multiple turnovers in nine of their 14 games and have failed to produce a takeaway in just one game this season, hanging on to the ball will be a big key for Allen. Since throwing three picks against the Patriots in Week 4, Allen has not had a multiple-interception game.

Bills coach Sean McDermott was reminded of the four total interceptions the Patriots picked off that day and was quick to point out how good the New England defense has been playing this year.

"Yeah, they're extremely talented," said McDermott. "They play well together and they're on the same page with a lot of the things that they do. It's been built well by Coach [Bill] Belichick, and he's got some really good players back there in a really good system, really good scheme."

On the other side, the Patriots offense has once again been safe with the ball this season, turning it over just twice in their last five games since the bye week. But with Julian Edelman fighting through a knee injury the pressure will be on Tom Brady to make good decisions when throwing to his secondary receivers that might not always be in the exact right spot.

Two veterans safeties like Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer will be doing their best to trick Brady into a mistake. Bill Belichick spoke before the first matchup about how effective a duo they are.

"It looks like they're in one coverage and they flip it around to something else, or it looks like they're in two-deep and they're in non-two deep or vice versa," said Belichick in September. "They disguise very well together and are very instinctive. There's definitely a level of interchangeability so it's hard to key on one guy, and really both guys, they complement each other well. You've got to see it post-snap. They're not going to give you much pre-snap but they time up their blitzes well with the cadence and motions, things like that that come with the formations. This is a very savvy defense."

Practice & Injury Report

Jonathan Jones remained the only Patriot missing from practice on Wednesday, putting his status up in the air for Saturday's game. Jones has been one of the most underrated members of the Patriots secondary, and his potential absence is a concern as the Bills lean heavily on their slot receiver Cole Beasley. Luckily the Pats have good depth, and Jason McCourty's status becomes even more important. McCourty continues to appear on the injury report with a groin injury of his own.

Jamie Collins was a new addition to the injury report with a shoulder issue.

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
CB Jonathan Jones, Groin

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
LB Ja'Whaun Bentley, Knee
LB Jamie Collins, Shoulder
WR Julian Edelman, Knee / Shoulder
CB Jason McCourty, Groin
DL Danny Shelton, Shoulder

Locker Room Sound Bites

Dont'a Hightower on making the Pro Bowl:

"Huge honor. I definitely was not planning on that this year, definitely had obviously bigger goals ahead. I appreciate my teammates, offense and everybody who voted, colleagues and all that good stuff. Obviously, we hopefully have bigger fish to fry."

Brandon Bolden on Matthew Slater's Pro Bowl nod:

"I know how hard he works for it, this is a big accomplishment. That's major and for Slater, a fellow special teams guy, that's big because that gives guys like me hope that we can all get there someday."

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