The Cincinnati Bengals will look to keep their winning streak going in what will be a rare Saturday game, as they’ll face the New England Patriots in Foxborough with frigid temperatures raging across America.
Ahead of the game, Taylor Kyles of SB Nation’s Pats Pulpit joined me for a Q&A to break down Cincinnati’s Week 16 opponent.
1.) AC: So, what’s the skinny on Mac Jones? I have a hard time getting a read on things with him as his second season is coming to a close. Obviously, I feel for him with having to immediately follow Tom Brady, but has he started to live up to the expectations set for him? Jones got them into the playoffs last year, has them sniffing it this year as well, but there still seems to be a lot of inconsistency—am I wrong on that?
TK: Not at all, but that inconsistency has largely been a product of circumstances around Jones. The second-year signal caller isn’t without blame, as he has a nasty turnover-streak when the offense was playing more aggressively, and he had one of his worst games as a pro last week in Vegas. That said, Jones has been a bright spot for most of the season since returning from a high ankle sprain, and he’s fighting a stew uphill battle.
The Patriots lost their offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in the same offseason, only for them to be replaced by former Patriots coaches in Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, neither of whom has come close to the standard set by their predecessors. This dramatically affected New England’s scheme, which has tried to keep up with league trends but ultimately feels directionless. The Patriots’ offensive line has also dealt with injuries and inconsistency all season, while top receivers Jakobi Meyers and DeVante Parker have each had to miss time with injuries.
So while Mac Jones hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, it wasn’t realistic for those expectations to be met with the hand he’s been dealt this season.
2.) AC: As it has been for a long time under Bill Belichick (Randy Moss and maybe Wes Welker/Julian Edelman notwithstanding), there isn’t so much a star-studded wide receiver group on the roster this year. Are they getting the job done like other past groups did with Brady, or is New England best-served to restock the receiver cabinet next year with potential studs as an additional aid to Jones?
TK: It’s been difficult to gauge where the Patriots’ receiving corp is due to aforementioned coaching changes and injuries to the offensive line, the latter of which has forced the offense to play a hyper-conservative brand of football just to keep Mac Jones upright.
Jakobi Meyers is by far their most consistent receiver and has shown growth in each season, but he hasn’t been the Ironman he was in years past, and it’s affected the passing game’s consistency. That said, he isn’t someone who scares you.
DeVante Parker has had some incredible moments on his signature downfield catches in traffic, and he’s even shown flashes underneath, but like Meyers he hasn’t been healthy enough to stay on the field and will miss this matchup.
Kendrick Bourne is an explosive playmaker and looked like a high-end WR2 entering the season, but for some reason he hasn’t gotten many opportunities and was demoted to WR4 when everyone was healthy.
Nelson Agholor showed awesome flashes early in the season, but he’s been plagued by fumbles, drops, and maddening inconsistency. As talented as Nelly is, he has yet to prove he can be relied upon.
Rookie Tyquan Thornton has game-changing speed and underrated quickness, but he’s been more of a clear-out guy and is still learning.
Moving over to tight ends, Hunter Henry is solid but unspectacular, while Jonnu Smith has spectacular ability but isn’t refined enough as a receiver to be an every-down player.
Rhamondre Stevenson has picked up a ton of slack for the Patriots’ receivers, using his incredible contact balance and physical style to break tackles in quick-hitters and screens.
So while the Patriots’ receiving corp has talent, they lack consistency and guidance.
3.) AC: We know Matthew Judon is a force, even though he had a quiet week last week. Give us some names who could give the Bengals’ explosive offense fits this week—be it from a player-to-player matchup perspective, or more because of general talent.
TK: DE Deatrich Wise has really cranked it up a notch this season, becoming a full-time starter after being a niche player for most of his six-year career. He’s a massive human being with rare length and power. He’s been giving linemen fits inside and out.
OLB Josh Uche has also turned a corner (pun intended) and become a dangerous pass rusher after battling injuries and veteran talent his first few seasons. Cam Jordan compared his bend to that of Von Miller, which you catch a glimpse of at least once a game. He’s explosive, crafty, and has been a handful for the past month plus.
The return of wrecking ball DT Christian Barmore is another almost unfair addition to the Patriots’ pass rush package, as the Alabama product walked a linemen back and grabbed Derek Carr through the blocker last week. Expect the Patriots to create as many 1-on-1 opportunities as possible in obvious pass situations.
4.) AC: What do you think the Patriots’ best plan of attack is this week against the Bengals? Ground-and-pound with Rhamondre Stevenson and Co. while using play-action? Air it out while trying to exploit Cincinnati’s injuries on defense? Or, rely on the rare, but back-breaking special teams and potential big defensive plays?
TK: Special teams will have to be big in this game for the Patriots to have a chance. At this point in the season the offense of what it is; a unit that has the ability to move the ball, but doesn’t get out of its own way enough to do so consistently and lacks the Red Zone efficiency to score touchdowns at the end of drives.
I expect the Patriots to run away from DJ Reader as much as possible while mixing in quick passes and screens on early downs to test the secondary’s willingness to tackle. If New England’s run game is effective, we could see them take a handful of play action shots over the middle.
5.) AC: DraftKings has the Bengals as a three-point favorite on the road this week. Do you see the Patriots playing angry and getting a win over a hot team after what transpired last week, or do you see Cincinnati continuing its winning ways and even covering the spread?
TK: Frankly, I think this could be an ugly one for the Patriots. While their secondary has excellent ball skills, I’m not sure they have the size to contend with Cindy’s receivers in “gotta have it” situations. Joe Burrow is also playing at a high level, and I’m not sure the Patriots’ defensive trickery will be enough to stall him.
Offensively, I can’t see the Patriots keeping pace with the Bengals if the road team puts up multiple touchdowns. I’m sure New England will try to possess the ball and limit Burrow’s opportunities, but I’m not very confident they’ll be able to do it.
Should be a fun week to be a Bengals fan!