By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — As recently as two months ago, the Buffalo Bills were thought to have the potential to give the Patriots a run for the AFC East title. These days, it’s looking like they’ll be lucky if they can pull off a 6-10 season.

The reasons, as they tend to be for struggling teams, are plenty. The defense, which was supposed to get a major boost from free-agent acquisitions like Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, has allowed 31 points per game, which is tied for the second-most in the entire NFL. That’s clearly not what they were looking for. Offensively, they rank 27th in passing yards, and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s nine interceptions have made it difficult for the Bills to be competitive against good teams.

On paper, the Patriots should win going away, but because nothing is guaranteed in football, here are four keys to focus on during Sunday’s game.

Can Anyone Cover Gronk Or Welker? Anyone?

Rob Gronkowski presents matchup problems no matter which opponent he’s facing on any given week, but he’s been an absolute monster against his hometown Bills. In his rookie season, he caught seven passes for 97 yards and three touchdowns in his two games against Buffalo. Last year, he caught 15 passes for 217 yards and four touchdowns in his two games against Buffalo. In his lone game against Buffalo this year, he had five catches for 104 yards and a touchdown.

That’s 24 percent of his career total in TDs in just 13 percent of his career games.

Clearly, it’s more than a trend, and unless Buffalo defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt discovered the magic formula for shutting down his 6-foot-6, 265-pound nightmare, expect another dominating performance from Gronkowski.

And there’s Wes Welker. Legally, Ralph Wilson owns the Bills. But for two days every year, Wes Welker owns the Bills.

In Welker’s last three games against the Bills, he has 31 receptions for 397 yards and two touchdowns.  In his 11 games as a Patriot against the Bills, he’s averaged seven catches and 76 receiving yards. Included in there was a 16-catch, 217-yard, two-touchdown performance last year. Earlier this year, after three weeks of phase-out talk, Welker caught nine passes for 129 yards.

One way or another, either with No. 83 or No. 87, the Bills are going to need to find an answer if they want to hold the Patriots under 35 points.

Turnover Battle

When Bill Belichick was asked this week if he knew why Patriots-Bills games have had huge swings, he spoke at length about a number of different areas, including the Bills’ occasionally explosive offense and dangerous special teams units. When asked to explain how the Patriots were able to go on a 45-7 run to close out the game, Belichick answered with just one word: Turnovers.

The Patriots were able to overcome their own pair of turnovers that September afternoon in Buffalo because the Bills had six turnovers of their own, four of which came on Ryan Fitzpatrick interceptions. It was the same story in the previous meeting between the two teams in Week 17 last year, when the Patriots roared back from a 21-0 hole, thanks again to Fitzpatrick’s four interceptions. And when the Bills proved last September that they actually can beat the Patriots, they did so with the benefit of forcing four Patriot turnovers and just two of their own.

As stated earlier, the Patriots can and should run away with this one, but if they find themselves on the wrong side of the turnover battle, they could find themselves in a surprising position come late Sunday afternoon.

Mario? Mario? Are You There, Mario?

The biggest reason why some experts pegged the Bills as potential contenders in the division this season was the signing of Mario Williams to a $100 million contract. To say it hasn’t worked out just yet would be quite the understatement. And after using a Twitter picture in the offseason in which a “Super Mario” version of himself was attacking Tom Brady, he was nearly invisible in his first game against the Patriots this season. He finished that game with just two total tackles and his name was hardly, if at all, mentioned on the television broadcast.

However, Mario showed up against his former team last week, registering five solo tackles (seven total) and a sack in a loss to Houston. Might he build upon that performance and actually deliver in a game against New England?

Ground Impact

Last time these two teams met, C.J. Spiller was given a less-than-friendly hello from Brandon Spikes. Spiller was trying to play through an injured shoulder, but thanks to a clean, heavy thumping from Spikes, that no longer was a possibility.

Spiller hasn’t been great since then, averaging 55.3 rushing yards in four games, finding the end zone just once. Fred Jackson hasn’t been much better, averaging 3.7 yards per carry with just one touchdown on the season.

As a whole though, the Bills’ rushing attack ranks sixth with 140.8 yards per game, and for them to have a real chance this Sunday, they’ll have to do a whole lot better than their 3.6 yards per carry and 98 total rushing yards from last time they played New England. For the Bills to compete, they’ll need to keep the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands as much as possible, and with Fitzpatrick’s penchant for showing off his interception skills against New England, the only way to do that is by running the ball effectively.

That’s of course easier said than done against the Patriots rushing defense, which allows just 3.5 yards per carry, second-fewest in the league. But the Bills will have to find a way if they want to make things different this time around. If not, expect more of the same results.

Read more from Michael by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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