First things first: This is not a "Must Win" game for the Bengals and I don't buy the argument that the Bengals need a "Statement Win," or they need to "Win on Primetime," or "Win Convincingly." That is all a bunch of crap.
This is a single game against a team, who prior to the season, most had the Bengals losing to. Yes, the Patriots have not played well so far, but let's not kid ourselves into thinking that this is not a dangerous team, especially in Foxboro and the possibility of staring a 2-3 record in the face.
If the Bengals win this game (by 40 or by 1), it gets them to 4-0 and puts them in great shape. If they lose, they go to 3-1 and still in good shape. This game is simply 1 game. No more. No less. The fact that it is on primetime or against a big opponent doesn't matter.
Are the Bengals the better team? No doubt.
Should they win? Probably. Are they a lock to win? Hardly.
Regardless of record or how they are playing, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are no pushovers - though the Patriots offensive line may be.
With that being said, here is what to look for in New England on Sunday night...
When the Patriots Run the Ball:
Patriots Running Attack: 23rd - 97.5 YPG
Bengals Run Defense: 17th - 113.3 YPG
The Patriots subscribe to the "split backfield" theory and each back has a pretty distinct role - Stevan Ridley is the runner (67% of the carries in 2014) and Shane Vereen is the receiving back (82% of the receptions by a RB). Unfortunately for the Patriots, neither have been very effective in 2014.
In 4 games, the Patriots have only managed 326 yards from their RBs and are averaging just 3.84 YPC. However, as anyone that has watched the Patriots will tell you, these paltry numbers are not a reflection of the RBs as much as they are a reflection of the line. In the previous 3 years, Ridley had been averaging 4.46 YPC and nearly 7 TDs/yr - including a 1,293 yard, 12 TD campaign in 2012.
In 2014, Ridley is on pace for 816 yards and 4 TDs. The Patriots line this year is brutal and this can be seen in all aspects of the Patriots offense. The Patriots RBs are likely the least talented backfield the Bengals defense has faced in 2014 and the Bengals have done pretty well against the others.
Their 17th ranking is a bit deceptive because many of those yards have come on broken play scrambles by the QB - something they don't have to worry about with Brady - and nearly all of the yards have come with Burfict out of the game (concussions).
From the sound of it, Burfict is likely out again on Sunday, but with Geno Atkins getting healthier by the week, the Bengals should still be able to suffocate the Patriots run game.
When the Patriots Throw the Ball:
Patriots Passing Attack: 30th - 201.0 YPG
Bengals Pass Defense: 15th - 239.3 YPG
In the passing game is where the Patriots O-Line issues have really been exposed. Only 5 teams have allowed more sacks than the Patriots and even when not sacked, Tom Brady has been harassed non-stop - 9 QB hits and countless pressures...and it shows in his performance.
The sure-fire hall of famer ranks 30th in YPG (198 - behind Hoyer, Geno Smith, Locker, Tannehill, Glennon, Manuel and Stanton to name a few); 27th in completion percentage (59.1%); 33rd in YPA (5.77); 29th in Rating; and t-21st in TDs (4). Sure, his receivers aren't great, but they are no less talented than his receivers of the last 2 years, and this year he has a healthy Gronk back.
In Week 5, the Patriots and their line will see their best defense of the year - by far. The Bengals, even without Burfict, have one of the best and deepest front 7's in the entire NFL and their 15th ranking in pass defense is a bit deceiving. Steve Smith had an 80 yard TD on a broken play and the Falcons and Titans added a bunch of garbage yards against backups in the 4th quarters of their respective games against the Bengals.
Beyond the front 7, the Bengals feature 5 first-round CBs and 2 play-making safeties, much better than what the Patriots have seen so far. The Bengals lead the league in PPG (11.0) and if you take out the garbage TDs added by the Falcons and Titans against backups, the Bengals starters (sans Burfict) have allowed just 19 points in 3 games (6.33 PPG).
When the Bengals Run the Ball:
Bengals Running Attack: 17th -121.7 YPG
Patriots Run Defense: 23rd -129.8 YPG
The Bengals run game has been better in 2014 than they were in 2013, but it still is less than what we expected under Hue Jackson. Rookie Jeremy Hill has been impressive on the ground (5.1 YPC) and Bernard has been impressive in the passing game, but the Bengals have yet to get Bernard in rhythm in the run game (3.4 YPC).
I expect that to change against a Patriots defense that ranks 23rd against the run and looked overmatched by the Chiefs 1-2 punch of Charles and Davis (199 yards on 34 carries - 5.85 YPC). Expect the Bengals to copy a lot of what the Chiefs did on Monday night and make the Patriots prove they can stop it.
After all, the best way to negate Tom Brady is keep him off the field by running the ball and the Bengals will do that Sunday night.
When the Bengals Throw the Ball:
Bengals Passing Attack: 11th - 262.3 YPG
Patriots Pass Defense: 1st - 185.5 YPG
While the Patriots should have a formidable pass defense - especially with the return of Browner - their #1 ranking is more a product of who they have played rather than how well they have played. The Patriots have played Ryan Tannehill, Matt Cassel, Derek Carr and Alex Smith...not exactly a Hall of Fame list of quarterbacks - or receivers for that matter.
While Andy Dalton is no Joe Montana, he and his receiving options present far more problems for a defense than the Patriots previous 4 opponents combined. Look for the Bengals to loosen up the Patriots defense by establishing the run and short passes, then once the safeties pull up, look for the play-action pass downfield.
The Bengals will target Browner early and often to see how game ready he is after his 4 week league induced vacation.
Kickoff Returns: Patriots -13th (24.7 avg); Bengals - t-17th (23.5 avg)
Punt Returns: Patriots - 8th (10.9 avg); Bengals - 2nd (17.8 avg)
Kickers: Stephen Gostkowksi 8/8 (100.0%; t-1st) Long 48
Mike Nugent - 7/11 (1 blocked, 3 misses; 63.6%, t-29th) Long 49
Punters: Patriots - Net 41.4 - t-17th; Bengals - Net 42.4 - t-14th; Punts inside the 20: Patriots t-1st (10); Bengals t-6th (8).
Kick Coverage: Patriots - t-20th (20.0 avg); Bengals t-27th (28.3 avg)
Punt Coverage: Patriots - t-15th (7.4 avg); Bengals - t-3rd (2.5 avg)
As I have said in the past few weeks, the Bengals special teams still concern me and the Patriots have a big advantage with Gostkowski over Nugent. However, the Bengals have one of the best punters in the league (Huber) and can use Huber to flip field position. In the return game and coverage game, the Bengals and Patriots are fairly even.
Clearly Bill Belichick and his 5 Super Bowl appearances and 3 Super Bowl rings get a huge advantage over Marvin and his 0-5 playoff record. However, Marvin is certainly better at evaluating and developing talent and it could be argued that Marvin is coaching better this year.
Still, Belichick is the best coach of his era - possibly of all time - and you can't find a sane person that wouldn't give the Patriots a huge advantage in the coaching matchup. Belichick doesn't lose much at home and he certainly doesn't lose 2 in a row very often.
The Bengals will have their work cut out for them against a Patriots team that is clearly better than the way they are playing.
Key to the Game:
Dominating the Patriots offensive line. Tom Brady is one of the best all time, but no quarterback has ever succeeded from his back. The Patriots were unable to protect Brady against 4 opponents with far inferior defenses than Cincinnati, and if the Bengals can manhandle the Patriots line like the Patriots prior opponents have, the Patriots have little hope of scoring enough points to win.
The Patriots may have the better history, the better brand and the better reputation, but the Bengals are simply the better team (and organization) in 2014. If the Bengals play the way they are capable of playing, this shouldn't be a close game. I trust the Bengals will overwhelm the Patriots at the line of scrimmage and dominate from start to finish.
Bengals 34, Patriots 17