Patriots-Bengals Preview from Tom E. Curran: No cinch in Cincy
Here we have two teams at opposite ends of the food chain. The 10-3 Patriots and the 1-12 Bengals. Unfortunately, they have one thing in common. Neither one scores much. The Bengals high for the season is 23 points and that was in Week 4. They’ve only scored more than 20 points twice.
The Patriots have scored fewer than three offensive touchdowns in five out of six games and the lone game they scored three – in Houston – two came in the very late stages after falling behind 21-3. So this game has the potential to look like a Patriots-Bengals from the not-so-distant past. Not the “On to Cincinnati” game people remember from 2014, but the ugly slog in the rain a year earlier when the Patriots lost 13-6 at Cincy.
So many elements are the same now for the Patriots offense – limited talent at wideout and a lack of protection up front.
Because of the Patriots' offensive struggles, what seemed for months like a simple walkover has the potential to be uncomfortably competitive.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
Hoping the Patriots get their all-important run game working at a somewhat competent level this week? It’s on them because the Bengals won’t help them. Cincinnati last week gave up 146 yards on 27 carries to the Browns but 57 of those came on one Nick Chubb carry. Down in, down out, the Bengals front-seven anchored by Geno Atkins (pictured) and Carlos Dunlap is a tough group to run against. In their lone win against the Jets two weeks ago, they held LeVeon Bell to 32 on 10 carries and Bilal Powell to 14 on four carries.
The Patriots labors in running the ball goes to personnel in front of the running back not the guy with the ball. The lack of tight end presence, the absence of a fullback, the subpar offensive line performance because of injury or just plain operator error, it’s been an issue all season. Jet sweeps, Tom Brady scrambles and James White runs against sub defenses have been the productive runs the past two games. Hard to see that changing unless a switch gets flipped.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
Only once in their past six games have the Patriots been better than 40 percent third-down conversions. There’s an array of reasons for that – ineffectiveness on first and second down leading to third-and-long, a lack of speed at receiver allowing teams to play press coverage and blitz the Patriots underachieving offensive line and speed up Tom Brady, increased attention sent to third-down staples Julian Edelman and James White.
The Patriots need a healthy Mohamed Sanu (pictured) desperately. If he can be a factor – and he hasn’t been in three weeks, then there could be a trickle-down effect. Until then, Brady will be reduced to ducking, running and trying to deliver to raw receivers who he doesn’t yet have extreme faith in. In their past three games, Cincy has allowed 203, 239 and 192 yards passing and kept quarterbacks under 50 percent completions in two of three.
WHEN THE BENGALS RUN
They don’t make a lot of progress on the ground. Joe Mixon (pictured), their main back, is averaging 3.8 per carry (789 yards on 206 carries) and has three rushing touchdowns. He and Andy Dalton account for all of the Bengals rushing touchdowns this season so – as you might imagine – they are horrible in the red zone.
Gio Bernard is the change-up back. He’s averaging 3.2 per carry. The Patriots have been solid against the run the past two games. With Dalton being no threat to run the ball – unlike all of the quarterbacks the Patriots have faced their past five games – Cincy is easier to defend and will be muffled.
WHEN THE BENGALS PASS
After being benched, Andy Dalton (pictured) has been given the reins to the offense once again and while the Bengals passing game has rebounded a bit it’s still going to be very, very tough sledding for them to get anything on the Patriots secondary. Tyler Boyd is having a nice season with 73 catches for 833 yards and three scores.
He’s a skinny dude – 6-2, 185 – and doesn’t present the same level challenge as the other No. 1s the Patriots have seen recently. Tyler Eifert is an effective, if brittle, tight end in the passing game. Mixon and Bernard are utilized in the passing game. I’ll be fairly surprised if Cincy gets more than 200 yards passing.
The Bengals special teams' strengths are kickoff returns (26.9 per return) and coverage (19.7 per return). Country star/kicker Randy Bullock is 7-of-11 outside 40 yards this season. Punter Kevin Huber has dropped 26 of his 61 punts inside the opponent’s 20. They are solid in punt coverage, unimposing on returns.
The Patriots have pretty much put up the white flag on returning punts this season. They’ve returned seven punts in their past eight games, one in their past three. Nick Folk has been a steady replacement so far. Rookie Jake Bailey (pictured) continues to have a terrific year with his top-tier coverage guys Nate Ebner, Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel. The Patriots blocked another punt last week, their fourth of the year. The Bengals haven’t had a punt blocked.
OUT: DL Byron Cowart (concussion); QUESTIONABLE: LB Ja'Whaun Bentley, (knee), WR Julian Edelman (knee/shoulder), C Ted Karras (knee), CB Jason McCourty (groin), WR Mohamed Sanu (ankle), DL Danny Shelton, shoulder.
OUT: WR A.J. Green (ankle), DT Rennel Wren (hip); QUESTIONABLE: CB Darqueze Dennard (illness).
Alex Kemp’s crew has this game. The second-year referee has only had one Patriots game since he’s been in charge of a crew and that was last September when the Patriots played at Miami. His crew has had modest penalty numbers for the most part in recent weeks. In each of his crew’s first four games this season, one of the teams got double-digit flags. Since then, only once has a team been flagged 10 or more times (Carolina, Nov. 24).
The Patriots are favored by 10 and the total is 41. Ten out of the Patriots 13 games this season have gone under. New England’s failed to cover in four of their past five games. I’m 6-6 against the spread, 9-3-1 vs. the total.
Patriots 19, Bengals 6
Week 1: Patriots 16, Steelers 13
Final: Patriots, 33-3
Week 2: Patriots 30, Dolphins 0
Final: Patriots, 43-0
Week 3: Patriots 20, Jets 6
Final: Patriots, 30-14
Week 4: Patriots 19, Bills 13
Final: Patriots, 16-10
Week 5: Patriots 30, Redskins 13
Final: Patriots, 33-7
Week 6: Patriots 16, Giants 3
Final: Patriots, 35-14
Week 7: Patriots 16, Jets 13
Final: Patriots, 33-0
Week 8: Patriots 27, Browns 10
Final: Patriots, 27-13
Week 9: Patriots 23, Ravens 13
Final: Ravens, 37-20
Week 10: Patriots 26, Eagles 13
Final: Patriots, 17-10
Week 11: Cowboys 23, Patriots 16
Final: Patriots, 13-9
Week 12: Patriots 24, Texans 23
Final: Texans, 28-22
Week 13: Chiefs 27, Patriots 20
Final: Chiefs 23, Patriots 16