The 2-2 Bengals are hoping they can spring some more Paul Brown Stadium karma on another undefeated team Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) while the 4-0 Patriots are banking on remaining the NFL's most surprising team as well as the least surprising at the same time. The Bengals.com media roundtable is sitting on a splintered fence, but everyone thinks it's going to be a close one.
The Table may not have a clear view of Cincinnati's fifth and best chance to beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but there's no doubt where it stands. In honor of the matchup with the Pats we used an all-Bay State roster to size this one up anchored by Mr. Bengal himself.
Dave Lapham, the Wakefield, Mass., product who grew up to play a decade in the NFL trenches and was a Super Bowl guard for the Bengals, has analyzed Bengals games on radio for the past 27 years and has called two memorable knockoffs of unbeatens at PBS. Ten years ago head coach Marvin Lewis got his first big win over the 9-0 Chiefs and two years ago the A.J. Green-Andy Dalton Bengals got their first big one with a fourth-quarter comeback that claimed the 3-0 Bills. Lapham doesn't give either team the edge Sunday in what he sees as a typical NFL one-score finish. But he thinks the home team has a shot if it runs the ball and gets to Brady a few times.
Karen Guregian, the K.G. that stayed, is in her 29th year at The Boston Herald in a career marked by her versatility. Mass all the way, the Chelmsford product and Northeastern grad has also covered the Sox and Celtics, as well as spending more than a decade chronicling the Bruins. She's covered the Pats in a variety of incarnations, this latest one for the past seven seasons, and when she sees the Bengals defensive line she's reminded of the Giants front that solved the Pats in two of the past five Super Bowls but sees the Pats holding them off in a close one.
Mike Reiss has covered the Patriots for four different entities since he was 21 and got out of the University of Massachusetts. He's been at ESPN Boston since '09 before working at The Boston Globe, The Metro West Daily News and Patriots Football Weekly. He's one of those rare Framingham, Mass. products who went to both schools, attending Framingham South for two years before it merged into Framingham High. Making a name for being able to break down practices instantly on his perceptive "Reiss's Pieces" blog, he sees the Pats in a tight one, uncertain if the Bengals offense can keep up with Brady.
Greg A. Bedard, who has been at SI.com since the spring, is another former Boston Globe titan. He went on to cover three NFL teams after getting out of Lincoln-Sudbury High School: the Dolphins for The Palm Beach Post and the Packers for the* Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel before heading home to The Globe.* He may be best known for breaking down every Wes Welker catch in 2011 hours after his big drop in the Super Bowl, but he doesn't see the Bengals dropping this chance to take advantage of the absence of nose tackle Vince Wilfork and sees Cincinnati winning a tight, low-scoring affair.
Let's go around the table. Ladies, first, of course:
Geno Atkins vs. either guard Logan Mankins or Dan Connolly is a big matchup. Atkins is a beast. They've been talking about him all week, but I think the whole Bengals line is a beast. In the past the Patriots line has had a little bit of trouble with the big, physical fronts such as the one the Bengals possess. Last week the Patriots had their way with the Falcons line, but this is a much different test. With Atkins and Domata Peko and Carlos Dunlap, it will be interesting to see how the line holds up and protects Brady. We know how it went against a similar kind of line in a couple of Super Bowls.
The Bengals running backs vs. the Patriots front without Wilfork. It could Joe Vellano in there. They could move backup tackle Chris Jones in there. They might move right end Chandler Jones over. The Bengals will be testing that big gaping hole left by Wilfork. We're in a passing league, but a lot of people's run games are set up by the passing game and the Patriots always talk about stopping the run first. You've got a guy like Wilfork who week after week takes up two guys. If he's not making plays, he's taking up enough guys to let other guys make plays. The guy is irreplaceable. It's him putting guys in the right place, making calls. There's so much about Vince Wilfork they're going to miss.
Without question Aqib Talib on A.J. Green is a matchup to watch. It's hard to see another cornerback playing as well or as better as Talib in the first four games. Last week he was immense in taking on both Julio Jones and to a lesser extent Roddy White when he had to. Julio Jones's numbers look good, but he had one play, one bomb, and Talib wasn't even covering him on that play. And Talib broke up the fourth-down play to save the game. He's meant everything to the Patriots defense to get that secondary back on line. Last week, sometimes Talib picked up Jones, sometimes he passed on to Roddy White. I'm not sure how the Patriots will use him on Green. It depends how dangerous they think Mohamed Sanu is and if they think it's important Talib spend some time with him or if they want safety help over the top for either of these guys. I would suspect they would work A.J. Green like they did Vincent Jackson (with straight man-to-man and following him.)
The other problem will be the Patriots have not been good at all over the middle. They couldn't contain tight end Tony Gonzalez last week with 12 catches for nearly 150 yards, two TDs. They've had their troubles with tight ends and running backs and I'm sure that's an area the Bengals will try to exploit. Their linebackers just aren't particularly adept at covering. But Gonzalez had a big game and the Patriots won because they were able to shut down the wide receivers.
THE EDGE: Patriots, 24-21. The Bengals are coming off a loss I'm sure they hated, but the Patriots are coming in on a little bit of a roll. They've been able to do what they've had to do to win games. They're coming off a big win in Atlanta and this is an AFC game. I think it's going to be a close game and I'm going to give it to the Patriots by a field goal.
This week with Belichick, it's all about Morph. He can morph into anything. He can take his personnel and scheme it based on what they do as well as anybody. Like what Bum Phillips said about Don Shula: He can take his'n and beat you'rn and he can take you'rn and beat his'n. That's how he is. You take a look at this team. They used to be no-huddle, hurryup. Now they huddle, run the ball, and they're in the top 10 in time of possession with more than 31 minutes. Ball control.
There are great matchups everywhere. Same old New England and it starts up front. As a former guy up front, I'm looking at their offensive line vs. the Bengals front seven. You can't let them establish the run because the play-action pass will kill you. If they don't run it successfully, play-action isn't a factor. But if Brady gets not only time, but separation and space to throw it ...
Brady doesn't like to feel people around his feet and his legs since he got his knee shredded in 2008 against Kansas City. You've got to get him off the spot. In the Super Bowl the Giants got him off the spot with a four-man rush. Their front four beat up the Patriots at the line of scrimmage. The Giants won the game on both lines of scrimmage. If they can do that and don't have to blitz too many times to pressure, the Bengals have a good shot. But if Brady can step into his throw, you're dead. You have to make him move off his back foot and make him move off his spot. That's the biggest key in my mind.
The Bengals defensive ends against the New England offensive tackles. I've got a lot of respect for their tackles and a lot of respect for left guard Logan Mankins. He thumps the crap out of you. Bengals tackle Geno Atkins vs. Logan Mankins; it's a Pro Bowl matchup every snap. It's interesting to me to see how much respect they have for Geno. How much do they help Mankins? If they go one-on-one, it's real interesting. If they say, 'OK Logan, you're our guy, multiple Pro Bowler, you've got him one-on-one.' That will be real interesting to watch, Mankins is a big-time mauler. I had him in college. He blocked three guys on one play. Geno is explosive. He's got plenty of strength. Two bulls locking horns every snap. Mankins is brute strength. He's not terrible, but he's not a great athlete in space.
Nate Solder is as athletic a left tackle as there is in the league. They do with him what the Bengals used to do with right tackle Dennis Roland and they'll use him as a tight tend. When I first saw him in college he was a tight end and he was a good one. He's really quick, he keeps his shoulder square. He's a hell of a player. You've got Sebastian Vollmer working against Carlos Dunlap. ... If you like trench talent, this is a game of trench talent.
Andy Dalton has to be better. Honestly, everyone around him has to be better for him to play better. Last week in Cleveland was not up to standard. They got into a mode where when one thing went wrong, then everything broke down and it had a ripple effect. And it got to be a mess.
The Patriots can morph in and out of a 4-3, 3-4 and change coverages based on your talent. Like Mike Vrabel, the left end, Rob Ninkovich, can stand up or put his hand on the ground. If Belichick takes away A.J. Green and the tight ends start hurting them, he'll clog the middle. He's going to take your strengths, adjust, and then make you make adjustments. He's a chess master. The Bengals have to communicate a lot better than they did in Cleveland. It will be better at home, but against these guys It has to be quick and spot on.
THE EDGE: I don't know if I give the Bengals the edge, but they have to win it. They have to look at it like they have to win this game. I don't give an edge because I think it's going to be a typical NFL game: decided by a touchdown or less. Or a field goal or less. It's going to be one of those. I don't see a blowout. I'd be shocked. And I believe what Andy Dalton said this week because I've seen it when he was in college and I've seen it here, too.
When he messes up the bed, he cleans it up and plays a lot better and makes a new bed and does a better job. The bookies have got the Bengals favored. To me it's about which Bengals team shows up. You know the Patriots don't have a big variance. That's what the Bengals have to get to. Not this big North-South pole gap. The Patriots don't have the skill players, but they play consistently and that's what the Bengals have to do.
I think it comes down to which team runs the ball better. The Patriots feel if they can control Geno Atkins in the middle with some combination of guard Logan Mankins and Ryan Wendell, the center who's a very underrated player. He's a lot better than people know. Dan Connolly's played a lot better since he's been back in the lineup and healthier. If they can control Geno up front, I know he's a big concern of the Patriots in this game, that would give the Patriots a big edge.
There's going to be a lot of focus on Aqib Talib vs. A.J. Green. Talib is much better than last year. His technique is much improved. No surprise since he's been in the Patriots program for a year now. That's a big matchup, too, but the Bengals really need to get going on the ground. That means they're going to need to control linebacker Brandon Spikes in the running game because I think the Patriots will probably be able to play a little more base in this game, which allows Spikes to on the field and he's one of the best run-stuffing linebackers in the league. When they're hitting play-action, the guy to go after is Patriots safety Steve Gregory. You've got to go after him with the tight ends. Gregory struggles at times and this is where big plays can be made.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 20-17. I think it's no coincidence that the Patriots were at their best against the Falcons last week because they were 50-50 run-pass. I don't know why they felt they needed to be so pass-happy with guys that can't run routes and catch the ball. They were much better when they were able to run the ball and I think it's the same thing with the Bengals. The Patriots could be run on when Vince Wilfork was in the lineup, now they're more vulnerable with him not in there. He's a huge key to that team, so the run is is going to be there for the Bengals and they need to take advantage of it. They need to pound the Patriots in the run. Whichever team does it is going to come out with the victory. I think this is going to be a very close game. I think the Bengals by a field goal. I think their backs are against the wall a little bit. The Patriots usually have a dud this time of year and they usually come on the road. They're coming down from getting up to play a very good Falcons team on the road. I think they'll struggle enough in this game to give the Bengals an opening.
The first big matchup is the Patriots offensive line vs. the Bengals defensive front. The Patriots have a solid offensive line with all five players back from last year. The Bengals strength is up front with Atkins a top player with Belichick comparing him to John Randle this week. Belichick can pour on the perfume, but I think that's how he really feels about Atkins. How does the line protect and does the defense line have the ability to disrupt the Patriots passing game?
There's no guarantee they put Talib on Green, but we saw it in Tampa when they put Talib on Vincent Jackson two weeks ago. He basically followed him everywhere he went and played a lot of man coverage. That would be fun to watch. Talib didn't get too much help in that game. Jackson's not a real burner, so it was a lot of one-one-one. Last week against the Falcons, more often than not they rolled a safety over because Julio Jones has that speed. I would think that they do that against Green. That's what Belichick does to take away the other team's bread-and-butter.
And you've got to see how the Patriots run defense holds up without Wilfork in there. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a changeup on defense with him out. Maybe they go 3-4. They're mostly 4-3 but they do some multiple stuff. If they go 3-4, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and left end Rob Ninkovich would be the outside backers and they'd probably reduce right end Chandler Jones inside to more of a 3-4 end than a 4-3 end.
I think wide receiver Danny Amendola has a chance of playing. I'd be surprised if he doesn't make the trip so he gives himself a chance to be a game-time decision. He does his best work in the slot. But when he was healthy in the opener he played in two receiver sets. He's a little bigger and faster than Wes Welker, he just hasn't been able to stay on the field.
THE EDGE: Patriots, 24-20. I think they're playing good complemenatry football right now with the three phases. The offense is finding its rhthym, the defense has been strong. With Amendola and Gronkowski potentially coming back further helps them. I wouldn't think there would be a heavy load for Gronkowski if he does play. Maybe 25 percent of the snaps. Maybe it's just the red zone. I had some concerns what I saw from the Bengals last week and I know it's just one game, but offensively they wouldn't be able to keep up with Brady. How much of that was the Cleveland defense? That's a pretty good defense.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Football gods look like they are beckoning the Bengals to run the ball. The Pats don't have their best run-stuffer and off-and-on rain is supped to pelt Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals have spent the week talking about their identity crisis on offense and the best and quickest way to adopt a personality is to play it straight. In football, that means off tackle.
It would also play into the strategy of keeping Brady off the field. Any replay of the four-turnover game two weeks ago against the Packers and the 4-for-14 effort on third down last week in Cleveland is going to doom the Bengals against Brady. If he gets 81 snaps like Aaron Rodgers did, he'll score more than 30 and clench his fist doing it. The Bengals haven't come close to matching chess pieces with the Pats in their two games here with Brady as the QB. If you can't beat 'em, they may join 'em and hound the clock.
You'd feel a lot better about things if the Bengals defensive line rotation were intact. At full strength, the Bengals play a game that beat the more talented Pats in two Super Bowls when the Giants four-man rush harassed Brady. With backup left end Robert Geathers out and starting right end Michael Johnson (concussion) questionable, the Bengals have ro get a big game off the bench from right end Wallace Gilberry and he's showed he's capable.
Last week's loss in Cleveland can't diminish what a win Sunday would mean. The Bengals would be 3-0 at home and all the wins against Super Bowl-winning QBs. They'd not only take down an unbeaten, they'd beat the NFL's gold standard. With the inexperienced Pats receivers and without their top-run stuffer, it looks like the Bengals best chance to get Belichick and Brady since Carson Palmer went out with a knee injury in the second half of the '04 shootout in Foxboro.