It's always intriguing when the best coach of the 21st century comes into the building named for the best of the 20th as Paul Brown's Bengals try to spring the upset Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at PBS against Bill Belichick's Patriots on the brink of another post-season berth.
The defending Super Bowl champions arrive looking to clinch their 11th straight playoff appearance and 17th during the reign of Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. With the Bengals dangerously close to securing the NFL Draft's first pick, this one should have all the drama of a coffee break. But it turns out it's a double shot to go, given the Pats have lost two straight, they're suddenly chasing the Ravens in the AFC and they're under investigation for taping the Bengals sideline last week in Cleveland.
So we split this week's Bengals.com Media Roundtable into those born B.B. (before the 42-year-old Brady) and A.B.
Those repping the A.B. generation are the Bengals beat reporters from The Cincinnati Enquirer (Tyler Dragon) and ESPN.com (Ben Baby) and both see Brady surviving this rare stretch of scuffle on Sunday. Karen Guregian, who has been at The Boston Herald long enough in her 35 years to have covered a Patriots game with the first Stanley Morgan, and Greg Bedard, who covered the Dolphins, Packers and Patriots for newspapers and Sports Illustrated before becoming the founding editor of the web site Boston Sports Journal, are the BBers. They've seen enough to believe the story of TB12 doesn't include a third straight loss.
Let's go around The Table. As always, ladies and visitors first, then the alphabet:
The Patriots have things to play for. They're trying to hold on to the No. 2 seed and keep tabs on a first-round bye. They're coming off two straight losses and when you play for Bill Belichick losses do not pile up. Bill will really be looking to turn things around against the Bengals for a number of reasons.
If you don't have enough weapons across the board against the Patriots defense, one back like Joe Mixon isn't going to hurt you. They'll figure it out. Typically, the Patriots are going figure out the things on the Bengals offense that can hurt them the most and shut them down.
Brady hasn't had a good year at all, but you can't point to one thing. The one thing he's done is not get killed in the pocket when he probably should have. He's been a good escape artist. He throws the ball away with the best of them. He hasn't had a good season for a lot of reasons. He doesn't have the receivers around him. The offensive line has been awful. He doesn't have Rob Gronkowski any more to help Julian Edelman even though Edelman is having a career year with nobody else around him, which is amazing.
They're also the champions of dealing with distractions when talking about the incident with the Bengals sideline in Cleveland. It's amazing. They've had quite a few of these things, whether it's SpyGate, DeflateGate, the Aaron Hernandez situation. They've had many things that could cripple a lot of teams, particularly when it comes to focus. Brady's suspension. They just coast through like nothing has ever happened. This is like a little blip on the radar for these players.
THE EDGE: The first game after the first SpyGate, they absolutely destroyed the Chargers. That was a good Chargers team and they got obliterated. I would say the Bengals would be in for some kind of beat down, but the offense just isn't capable. It's tough for them to score 20, so I gave them 24. PATRIOTS, 24-6
That New England defense is really tough and I know the Bengals have had a lot of struggles along the offensive line. This is not a front that you want to have a struggle. They do a lot of confusing things. They bring different types of pressures. Different stunts. Different twists. If the line's not on top of their game you're going to have a really tough time moving the ball.
But on the other side the Patriots are scuffling so much on offense right now and the Bengals are still a good, viable defensive team, especially with guys like Geno Atkins up front. If Ted Karras can't go at center and Geno can get matched up with James Ferentz, who's not good at center, and right guard Shaq Mason, who is no longer playing at a Pro Bowl level.
They're not going to run away from anybody. If the Bengals are smart and do what everybody else has been doing against the Patriots, they rush five and try to get to Brady as soon as possible or double wide receiver Julian Edelman and/or running back James White. If you bracket Edelman and put a defensive back on White and do those things, the Patriots have a hard time moving the ball. They have no explosion in their offensive game. The only way they get it is on trick plays and I think at this point offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is out of them.
Brady is not done. I think he's actually having a pretty good season. His stats wouldn't say that. It's just one of those situations where they can't run block, they can't pass block and they don't have anybody that can get open. If the line was just bad and they had really good weapons, then Brady would just get rid of it in 1.5 seconds and they'd move the ball. But he doesn't have those weapons any more. Nobody gets open quickly. If they had terrible weapons and a great offensive line, sort of like last year, then they could move the ball. But right now they're not just good at anything and Brady is paying the price.
They probably have the most full-time special teams players in the league, but they haven't invested a lot in returners and they've had a lot of penalties in that group. But they've had a revival lately. They've been blocking more kicks (four blocked punts) and I think Belichick realizes that he's almost got to sell out on defense and special teams to get short fields and get turnovers to score enough points the way the offense is going. They'll be aggressive. Whether they'll be effective, we'll see.
THE EDGE: The Bengals are going to have a tough time scoring on this defense. The Patriots offense isn't great, but in the last couple of weeks Brady has realized if he doesn't turn the ball over they have a chance to win just about every game. He hasn't been as daring and they'll be able to do enough to win the game, but it still won't be pretty offensively. PATRIOTS, 27-7
One of the X factors is that the lines have been pretty similar and the Bengals on both sides of the line have been getting better the last few weeks and the Patriots have looked a little suspect. As good as the New England defense is, it could be an interesting game because if the Bengals can hang around, and I don't know if they can, it could be a very fascinating game.
When you look at Brady's numbers, they are not what you would expect from a guy of his caliber, whether that's age or the people around him. Despite the record this probably isn't the same Patriots team that we've seen. But defensively they are phenomenal and that's going to be toughest challenge for the Bengals on Sunday. To put up points against a defense that stout. Wide receiver Auden Tate had been such a great option for them before he got hurt because he's a guy that doesn't need a lot of separation and he's got such a great catch radius and has such great hands. When you take that away, how does that affect the receiver corps? Can John Ross extend the defense and open things up on the inside? Can rookie Damion Willis make the most of his snaps?
THE EDGE: I think the Bengals will be able to scratch a touchdown. But the holes they have defensively are still going to be too much to overcome. Especially with a guy like Belichick, a guy like Brady. They'll still get enough points on the board. PATRIOTS, 27-13.
View images of the Bengals-Patriots series over the years.
This would be a statement win for the Bengals. To put a win over the Patriots on your resume at the end of the season, beating the defending Super Bowl champions with their great history would be a great way to build into next season after this year that's been an overwhelmingly disappointment.
The Patriots aren't as good as they have been. They're on a two-game losing streak. Father Time is undefeated. You can tell with Tom Brady's accuracy going down, his passing yards are the lowest they've been in a few years. This is the time to beat the Patriots, but they have the best defense in the league. As good as advertised. They have a plus-19 turnover differential. They specialize in turning the ball over. They're just good top-to-bottom. This is one of Bill Belichick's best defensive units. It's going to take a tremendous effort on the offensive side to be able to score consistently on that defense.
Bengals running back Joe Mixon told me at the bye week he wanted November and December to be his best months of football this season and he's backed it up. He's got 469 yards rushing since the bye, third in the NFL the last five games. And the Bengals are using him. He leads the NFL in carries the last five games. They need to give him the ball. The Patriots are No. 4 against the run, but you can't let that deter you. You need to give your best healthy player the ball. If I'm Zac Taylor I'm giving Joe Mixon around 30 touches this game and that's running the football and catching it out of the backfield. Bill Belichick is known for taking your best players out of the game, but the Bengals are running out of options and Mixon is your best asset.
THE EDGE: The losing streak ends. There's no question the Patriots are the better team, PATRIOTS, 27-13
THE BOTTOM LINE
Look, Belichick's Patriots have dominated the NFL this century not just because they take away your best player with some wrinkle in a game plan they ironed out like a collar Tuesday night before game. But they have won six Super Bowls because they also play with an outlook that has been winning football games since the Grant Administration. They not only want to beat you, they also have every intention of pulling out your heart, grilling it, and serving it up in one of those restaurants lining Route 1 from Foxboro to Boston. That's what makes Thomas Edward Patrick Brady so good.
Burned in the eyes of the Bengals coaches this week is the last snap of the Patriots' 43-0 win in Miami earlier this season. The Dolphins had the ball on the New England 8 with four seconds left. They called an all-out zero blitz and ended the game with a pick.
So just imagine the Patriotic mindset on Sunday. They come in with a two-game losing streak (they haven't lost three straight in 17 years, back when the Curse of the Bambino had yet to be lifted and Boston sports fans were still viewed as charming) and another week where their offense has been hammered in the Hub headlines, alternating with the Red Sox's new regime of baffling budget bureaucrats.
Plus, they arrive under yet another cheating cloud after last week in Cleveland, where they either inadvertently taped the Bengals sideline for a feature on Patriots.com or tried to add Cincinnati's first-year coaching staff to their video library. Choose your narrative. This much we know. The Patriots admitted to breaking the rules by mistake and Belichick splices distractions for a living as the best coaches do.
This we also know. The Bengals are playing their best ball of the season. They may have realized it a bit late, but without A.J. Green, Joe Mixon is their best player and they're riding him. Since he's led the NFL in rushing attempts the last five weeks, they've been in games to the end. It's hard to believe after the start of the season that coming into this game it is the Pats that are at 3.5 yards per carry and only the Jets and Dolphins are worse.
The Bengals' offense needs to make a big play on the field or in the red zone to score touchdowns and that's been tough with Green on the bench and big-play John Ross just coming off injured reserve.
Brady and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton share the same problem. When Dalton's answer to Edelman, Tyler Boyd gets taken away, he can't find anybody open, either. The Bengals need a rookie wide receiver like Stanley Morgan Jr., to make a play against a team whose all-time leading receiver is Stanley Morgan, no relation.
The Bengals aren't going to score a lot of points against the NFL's top-ranked defense. But they can make sure they don't let that defense turn into an offense, either, with return TDs, or mistakes that fuel a devastating league-leading plus-19 in turnover differential. If Dalton isn't flawless, it's going to be quite difficult. But if they can stay away from dangerous situations and keep pounding Mixon for something like 98 yards on 30 carries while not making a mistake, that's half the battle.
Keep an eye inside the 20 because you can't let the Pats off the hook not getting a TD in there. That's another spot they strangle you. The Pats defense is tied for sixth when it comes to allowing fewest red-zone TDs while the Bengals offense is next to last.
And they just did something like that against the Jets' top ranked run defense two weeks ago at The Paul. They diligently ran Mixon often enough to keep the Jets at bay and their defense and special teams backed them up with terrific efforts. That's the blueprint, not the Oct. 6, 2013 victory here over the Pats, when Brady was working against a defense that would finish No. 3 in defense.
Still, although this Bengals defense is ranked No. 31, they've played well enough to win in the last month. Their improved run defense (they're still ranked last) took a shot last week when free safety Jessie Bates III, who played so well other than this, led the charge on four missed tackles on Nick Chubb's 57-yard run. But that's all a very good Browns' running game got.
Still, Brady is The Master and you know he'll be looking to exploit his running backs against the Bengals linebackers. We'll know how much improved they are after Sunday. And forget that Brady leads the NFL throwing away passes. The Bengals have been prone to giving up the long pass (they didn't in Cleveland in a great effort so take a bow there, Jessie Bates) and the Pats' most productive play has been when Brady goes deep to the right. They've run it 35 times and it averages nearly 15 yards.
Special teams is always a treat when these two play because Belichick and Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons are so good at it. The Bengals' unit is ranked No. 1 in the league and they need another big day from punter Kevin Huber and kicker Randy Bullock and friends. Can't give Brady a short field. The Pats don't have an explosive return game, but for the first time under Belichick they have four blocked punts in a season this year and if they win the Super Bowl they'll be the only team to do it in the last 32 years with four different kickers. They don't make mistakes and if you make one in the kicking game, they take advantage of it with a block or a fake.
And that's what the Pats do in all three phases. They hang you with your own mistakes because they just don't make very many. That's the Bengals challenge Sunday. Out-Mistake Belichick's mistake-free Patriots.