These four match-ups will not involve the obvious offensive line vs. defensive line match-ups that are crucial to the outcome of any football game. The Patriots are at a disadvantage on both match-ups if they play like they did in Week 1. The clear scheme is to not let the Bills defensive line dictate the match-up and on the other side force the Bills into long 3rd down situations. Instead, I'll opt for skill position match-ups and these are four critical match-ups for the game:
Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Bills CB Stephon Gilmore
Unlike the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Buffalo Bills are equipped with players who can slow down Gronkowski off the line. The Patriots will definitely attempt to scheme Gronkowski open with formations and try to isolate him on linebackers in space. Unless Stephon Gilmore gets his way, that is. Which in that case, the Bills would be putting their best cover man on the Patriots most dynamic receiving threat. The Bills and Rex Ryan know that the key to the Patriots offense is Rob Gronkowski. Gronk is going to get his catches because he's too good to completely stop. If the Bills do indeed put Gilmore on Gronkowski, that means that Julian Edelman could see more footballs thrown his way. If Gronkowski is able to be the Red Zone and Seam threat we all know he can be, it's going to be a long day for the Bills defense and a lot of spiked footballs in the Bills end zone.
Patriots CB Malcolm Butler vs. Bills WR Sammy Watkins
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots need to be able to shut down the outside passing attack of the Buffalo Bills in order to be able to focus on the run game that Buffalo is throwing at New England's way. That means Butler vs. Watkins on an island with a Single High safety in the middle of the field. Butler was able to run with Antonio Brown, but was unable to get his hands on a football in large part to Ben Roethlisberger's chemistry with Brown. Bills QB Tyrod Taylor is not going to be nearly as accurate a passer, which gives Butler a larger margin of error to operate with. If Butler can stay on top of Watkins' routes and stay disciplined against the double moves, fake routes, and jab steps that Watkins will likely to run on him, Watkins is going to be a non-factor for the Bills. One issue I saw with Butler in the preseason and in Week 1 is that Butler struggles against double moves, especially when the double move leads to a go route. Staying in a good position to defend both the real and the fake route on the double move can mitigate that issue.
Patriots Linebackers and Safeties vs. Bills TE Charles Clay
Like Rob Gronkowski, Bills TE Charles Clay presents a match-up problem for opposing defenses. The Patriots aren't going to put their best cover guy on him, but they are going to have to scheme him out of the game. Clay can line up and be effective in any part of the field, which presents a very tough challenge. The Patriots will likely counter with a big nickel base defense with Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty assuming most of the coverage duties against Clay. If the Patriots go big nickel, I see Devin McCourty playing up and lining up against him if Clay is lined up wide or in the slot. If he's on the end of the line, expect the Patriots edge defender to chip him then McCourty/Chung picks him up off the route. In the 3-safety package, Duron Harmon is on the field and he can play the single-high safety role very well. While Harmon is not nearly as fast or experienced as McCourty is, Harmon showed growth at the position last year and the coaching staff trusts him to be able to do his job.
Patriots RB Dion Lewis vs. Bills Linebackers
In Week 1, Dion Lewis proved to be a very reliable receiving threat and could be in line for another 15-20 touches in this game. More of those touches will likely come in the passing game as opposed to the running game with LeGarrette Blount activated from the suspension list. While Lewis might not get as many carries, he could provide an impact in the passing game as a receiver isolated against linebackers in space. Lewis' shiftiness combined with a solid burst with the ball in his hand could create problems against the Bills linebackers. While the Patriots aren't able to spread the ball out with their receivers, they can do so with their backs and tight ends.
Whoever wins the majority of these match-ups will likely win the game on Sunday. I expect the Bills to try things to slow down Rob Gronkowski's release and affect the timing of Brady's throws. If Brady is unable to get the ball out in under 3 seconds, that's basically a win for the Bills secondary unless the Patriots offensive line is able to stand their ground. On the other side, the Patriots must prevent the Bills from establishing a perimeter passing game because that means less people in the box to stop Rex's Ground and Pound offense. It's easier said than done with how quick Percy Harvin and Sammy Watkins can get up-field. The Patriots corners must play a strong game for the Patriots to be able to stop the Bills offense.