Adam Jones picked off the Patriots' final bid at Paul Brown Stadium last season.
The Bengals are at the top or right near it of everyone's NFL power rankings this week, but maybe the biggest endorsement of all comes from future Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Belichick.
Sure, Belichick's Patriots are playing the Bengals in Sunday Night Football's matchup (8:30-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in New England. And no one speaks better coach-ese, the art of morphing the next foe into a dynasty. Take it with a grain of salt. But he's still William Stephen Belichick and when he says the Bengals are the most complete team he's seen in a while, that gets your attention.
"This is really an impressive football team," Belichick told the New England media Wednesday. "I think (Bengals president) Mike Brown, Coach (Marvin) Lewis, the organization have really done a good job of building this football team….It's been a while since I've seen a team that's as complete as they are."
He says they're better than they were almost a year to the day of this meeting at Paul Brown Stadium. They not only broke Hall-of-Fame quarterback Tom Brady's streak of 52 straight games with a touchdown pass by holding him to one of 12 on third down, but they rushed for 162 yards on 39 carries in a 13-6 victory for their first victory in five tries against the Belichick-Brady empire.
Here's a team that leads the NFL in allowing the fewest sacks, generating the best turnover differential and allowing the fewest points per game. Which means they're not beating themselves, the anchor trait of Belichick's Patriots dynasty. So he can admire it.
"I think those things that Marvin emphasizes and I've heard him emphasize for years and years are exactly the way the Bengals are playing," said Belichick when he lobbied the Cincinnati media in Wednesday's conference call. "They're not turning the ball over, they're taking it away. They're running the ball, they're stopping the run. They're making explosive plays; they're not giving them up. They're doing a lot of things well. This is as good of a team as I've seen in a while."
And the Bengals won't argue that they're better than last year.
Certainly not Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, who ended Brady's final PBS gasp last season from the Bengals 27 tipping an interception to himself at the 3 with 16 seconds left.
"I think everybody's healthy and everybody on defense knows what everybody is supposed to do," Jones said before Wednesday's practice. "We try to get the ball checked down to where we want to get the ball checked down. We've done a good job on offense of not turning the ball over. The running game is a lot better. When you have those things going for you it's going to be hard to beat us."
Here's what a good running game can do for you. It can elicit an audible sigh straight from Canton as Belichick mused how well the wide receivers block for Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill.
"They're aggressive and they're big. They do a good job of helping the running game with their blocking, which sets up opportunities for them on play-action passes," Belichick said. "You're trying to get by them but then it's a play-action pass and he gets by you (sigh). You have to deal with that, so it's all those things."
The defense, ranked first in the league in allowing 11 points per game, thinks it is better than last year's group that finished No. 3 overall in the NFL rankings. Even though long-time defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is now the head coach in Minnesota, the promotion of linebackers coach Paul Guenther is showing the benefits of staying in-house with the same system and rewarding coaches that come up through it.
"I think we're a lot sounder on defense," said nose tackle Domata Peko. "I think we have another year under this Zimmer/Paulie G defense. Or Paulie G defense. Just knowing where we're supposed to be at certain times, knowing our guys are going to be in their gaps and just understanding the philosophy Paulie G has given us and we're better. "
A lot of it is continuity since they lost just one starter from last season. Belichick alluded to it when he talked about the ample abilities of the Bengals secondary with the Cincinnati media. Since 2012, the cornerback combo of Jones, Terence Newman, and Leon Hall has started 71 games and go into Foxboro with a combined 311 NFL starts. The four wide receivers the Patriots had active Monday night (Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Matthew Slater) have a combined 93 career starts.
"Those guys have all played and been there together for a long time," Belichick said. "Not so much (Darqueze) Dennard and (Dre) Kirkpatrick but talking about Hall, Jones, Newman along with (safety Reggie) Nelson. There's a lot of carryover and consistency. I'd say cohesion in that group. You see them communicating on the field, alerting each other or being able to make different pass offs on combination routes and things like that that a lot of other teams either don't do or aren't able to do."
The defense certainly has a great deal of faith in Guenther. In his first three games he has shown a knack for bringing one more rusher than the offense can block.
"He's always unpredictable," said defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry. "We're just waiting because we know it's going to be a good play. We're just waiting for him to get it out so we can execute. We've got a lot of confidence in him."
It's the same scheme that Zimmer employed, but clearly Guenther has brought his own spice to make them think they're that much better.
"I think Paulie is using certain guys in certain situations a little bit better than before," Peko said. "He finds our strengths and puts us in places where we can make plays. That's what I love about Coach Paulie. He said he's going to find the best not 11 guys, but find the best 23 guys to win games and he's been using each one of the 23 to all of our strengths to help our team win."
It has been noticed.
"It's impressive," Belichick said. "Very impressive."