The New England Patriots (4-0) visit the Cincinnati Bengals (2-2) at 1 PM EST, this Sunday, to be shown on CBS.
The two teams find themselves coming into this weekend’s matchup in two very different situations. The Pats survived Atlanta 30-23, defying expectations with their best offensive performance of the season. The Bengals on the other had are fresh off of a 17-6 loss to the Brian Hoyer-led Cleveland Browns, and find themselves at .500.
The gut reaction based on that alone is to have the Pats as big favorites coming into this game, but it would be downright silly to count out the Bengals. As disappointing as Andy Dalton has been, their defense (especially the bananas front line) is imposing, and will be even more so if safety Reggie Nelson and corners Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick return from their various injuries. Add in their two-back tandem of Law Firm/Gio Bernard and one of the Top 3 WRs in the NFL in AJ Green, and this will still be a hell of a ballgame.
Key Matchup: CB Aqib Talib vs. WR AJ Green
A quick honorable mention should go to Logan Mankins/Ryan Wendell vs. Geno Atkins. Atkins is one of the most downright frightening defensive linemen in the league, and has been a terror against opposing defensive lines. That being said, the Pats O-line has done an awesome job in keeping Brady upright, and giving him a ton of time in the pocket. If Mankins and Wendell can neutralize Atkins (and if d-ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap can be contained), this game gets a whole lot easier.
That being said, the key, and most watched, matchup in this game is absolutely Talib vs. Green. Green is the most targeted receiver in the NFL (tied at 51 with Cecil Shorts) and you can bet Dalton, who is playing for his job at this point, will go for him as much as possible (it’s scary to think what a better quarterback could do with Green). He’s fast, he’s strong, he’s tall, and he scores a lot. Green has slowed down of late (only 138 receiving yards combined in his last 3 games), but is way too talented to underestimate.
Luckily, the Patriots have been making a habit of shutting down star receivers, and haven’t allowed a wide receiver to score since Week 1. The lion’s share of the credit for that belongs to Aqib Talib, who hopes to add Green to the list of Vincent Jackson and Julio Jones of stars that he’s neutralized (Jones’ backbreaking 4th quarter haul didn’t involve Talib). It’s been a while since New England has had a true shutdown corner, and if Talib can continue to provide that, the Patriots’ infamous pass defense woes may be over.
If Talib can keep Green from making any big plays and bailing Dalton out, look for the rest of the Pats’ defense to knock out the Bengals. But if Green breaks free, look out.
3 Questions heading into the game
When will this injury madness stop?
Much has been written about the loss of Vince Wilfork, and for good reason. The heart and soul of the Pats’ defense, an absolute game changer who demands a double team constantly, and a leader for a young, young team, to say New England will miss him is an understatement as big as his waistline. In his place this week the Pats will most likely start undrafted rookie, and cult hero in the making, Joe Vellano, which is a pretty good indicator of how shallow the depth is for New England at D-tackle. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots reach back out to Kyle Love or Brandon Deaderick.
More bad news? Stevan Ridley is out this Sunday with a knee injury. Van Riddles had a nice game against Atlanta (11 carries, 53 yards), and it definitely hurts the Patriots to not have him. Instead the Patriots will rely on LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden. Which is….fine. But the depth at running back is also getting a little iffy. You might wonder if this is the time we see Leon Washington make an appearance, just as a change-of-pace back from the bruising Blount and Bolden.
Some good news? Danny Amendola has indicated that he’s ready and willing to jump back on the field this week, which is huge. Amendola and Brady showed terrific chemistry in Week 1’s game against Buffalo, and should cure any of New England’s third down woes. Not only that, but Amendola’s presence means less attention on Julian Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins, or Aaron Dobson. Especially if the Bengals’ injured members of the secondary don’t return in time for Sunday’s game, look for Brady to have fun with his new target.
2. Can the Pats defense get to Dalton?
The Bengals offensive line is a nuisance. Their interior lineman, Kevin Zeitler, Clint Boling, and Kyle Cook are especially strong, and do a great job of opening up holes for their running backs, and providing their quarterback with enough time. The Bengals o-line, as a whole, has allowed 0 sacks and only 27 total pressures in 162 plays this season. Unfortunately, Dalton has been letting them down a bit, especially in a gruesome performance against Cleveland.
Obviously, without Wilfork, expecting a huge game from the Pats’ defensive lineman may not be completely fair. But if Chandler Jones, Tommy Kelly, and Rob Ninkovich can put a few licks on Dalton, it may throw off his rhythm enough to spark up his bad habits. Look for the Belichick and the Pats to a) focus on eliminating the running game (big opportunity for Brandon Spikes to step up) and force the ball back into Dalton’s hands and b) conjure up their typical crazy blitz packages on 3rd down, and at least challenge this offensive line to keep Dalton upright.
3. How much will we miss Zach Sudfeld?
Seriously. I’m very upset about this. Yes, he hadn’t collected a catch in four games. Yes he couldn’t corral a key onside kick. Yes, he wasn’t the best blocker. But you can’t just cut Rowlf! He didn’t even make it onto the practice squad, as he was claimed off waivers by the Jets. I repeat, THE NEW YORK JETS!
Goodbye Zach. We’ll miss you.
You can be optimistic about this and say that this is a sign of Rob Gronkowski’s imminent return. Or that Brady feels that Matthew Mulligan is a more viable receiving target, especially after last week’s nifty touchdown catch (and niftier throw, talk about threading the needle). But it’s still a sad day.
RIP The Zach Sudfeld (aka Malik Sudcliffe, aka Rowlf) Era. You were over far too soon.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Bengals 14
Many pundits that are picking the Bengals for the win this Sunday keep repeating the phrase, “The Patriots are due for a loss.” Which is just plain wrong. Yes, New England may be “lucky” to be 4-0, but they’re getting better every week, especially the young receivers. Thompkins and Dobson are making more steps with Brady, Edelman has been huge, and Gronkowski and Amendola are on their way back. A few more weeks, and the Patriots could be back to their dominant offensive ways.
In the meantime, I’m looking at what will start out as a close game. I think the Patriots’ offensive line is good enough to keep Atkins & Co. at bay, and that, while the pass rush may not be there, Spike sand the New England linebackers should keep Bernard/Green-Ellis from bursting out. So, as per usual, come the second half, it will all come down to the quarterback play. Brady doesn’t make many mistakes. Dalton has made quite a few. Look for a couple forced turnovers from New England, and a nice win to go 5-0.