Remember the days leading up to Week 5 back in 2014 when the 3-0 Cincinnati Bengals, coming off a bye, were gearing up to take on the 2-2 New England Patriots? Bill Belichick’s squad was in a bit of a tailspin, and as the national media began to write them off, he really only had one, innocuous and ominous statement to make in leading up to the Sunday night clash.
“We’re on to Cincinnati”.
Those four words have lived in Patriots lore since, especially since the season was capped by their victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. The phrase has also stuck in the craw of Who Dey Nation, as it not only marked an injury-plagued 7-5-1 finish to the season with a familiar first round postseason exit, but it also gave the painful reminder that Marvin Lewis’ squad still has yet to figure out how to hang with the big boys of the NFL.
The start of the 2016 season has been disappointing in a somewhat-expected way for the Bengals. Between playing a road game against a quality division rival, as well as hosting last year’s Super Bowl champs, getting through a treacherous first third of their schedule with a winning record was going to be tough.
The cynic who has seen the Bengals for years will note that the three losses against the Steelers, Broncos and Cowboys, respectively, point to Lewis’ continuing inability to have his Bengals start winning the type of games for a contender to be taken seriously. It’s a familiar and unfortunate trend we’ve seen, even under the best Bengals teams of late.
However, the optimist would note the current 12-4 combined record of those clubs and see Cincinnati’s new personnel working through some growing pains that might be remedied at the end of the year. After all, they’ve surprised us before, right?
As they trudge into Gillette Stadium Sunday afternoon, the Bengals will need to play near-perfect football if they want to even their record to 3-3. Unfortunately, they haven’t been playing anything close to great football most of this year and it also looks more and more likely that Tyler Eifert misses this game.
Aside from giving a history lesson, we would be remiss if we didn’t go through some numbers for this game. A lot of them for Cincinnati haven’t been pretty, especially this ditty from Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders.
Not coincidentally, the Bengals are 30th in the NFL on third down conversion rate. Combine that with a 25% decrease in red zone efficiency from last year (65% in 2015, 40% currently), and a toxic offensive result has been on display through the first five weeks.
Most readily point to offensive coordinator Ken Zampese as the primary reason for the struggles, but player execution has also been borderline awful. The Bengals’ offensive line has given the second-most sacks this year with 17, the running backs haven’t found holes and receivers have both dropped passes and struggled to get open.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the usually-reliable defense isn’t holding up their end of the bargain, either. Though the unit is ranked No. 11 overall in total yards per game, they are tied for fourth-worst with five passing plays of 40 yards or more—something that was completely clamped down on in 2015.
Again, we have to ask: what is this team doing well?
Meanwhile, all of Boston is glowing in the return of Tom Brady, who lit up the stat sheet for three touchdown passes against the Browns last week. While their offense employs a bevy of frustrating chain-movers at running back and wide receiver, it’s the two mammoth tight ends that bring fear to the opposition.
Rob Gronkowski doesn’t have a receiving touchdown yet this year, but he’s always a threat, while Martellus Bennett has grabbed four in the quarterback carousel that has commenced in New England this season. It seems to be a big afternoon for guys like George Iloka, Josh Shaw and Darqueze Dennard to step up.
The Patriots aren’t perfect either. As our own Connor Howe noted, New England’s defense isn’t good on third down, currently ranked 27th in letting teams move the chains. It seems like an opportune week for the offense to finally start to gain some confidence.
Even so, the chips seemed stacked against the Bengals in this one, for a variety of reasons. Lewis’ 1-5 record against Belichick and 0-3 at Foxboro is definitely one of them, as is the current state of the Bengals’ play.
But, for all of the warts they have shown this year, this team has surprised us in the past. In 2009, “The Cardiac Cats” had multiple comeback wins against quality clubs, while also securing other crazy wins like the 2013 whirlwind against the Packers and last year’s overtime thriller against the Seahawks. When attempting to apply logic with the Bengals, it’s best to expect the unexpected.
However, this week seems to be one where expecting a loss is a safe bet. I think Cincinnati plays better and makes it tough on New England, but Brady and Belichick will continue their dominance over Lewis’ Bengals.
Bengals 17, Patriots 27
AC -- Prove me wrong.