When Patriots head coach Bill Belichick stepped to the microphone for his big Wednesday press conference at Gillette Stadium this week he apparently had two things on his mind – stonewalling any questions regarding his organization’s videotaping of the Bengals’ sideline and win-loss records.
Belichick nailed his first talking point. “Do not have anything to add,” the stone-faced coach said repeatedly.
But the references to the records of the two teams set to battle Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati – the Bengals enter the game at 1-12 while the Patriots are 10-3 – were a bit more curious and up to interpretation.
“I think this is a football team that doesn’t have a good record, but they actually do a lot of things really well in all three phases of the game. I’ve been very impressed watching them play and they cause a lot of problems,” Belichick said of the Cincy squad currently in line to get the No. 1 pick in next spring’s draft.
First-year coach Zac Taylor’s team is near the bottom of the league in plenty of areas on both sides of the ball. It benched its veteran starting quarterback and brought him back. It’s played without its franchise wide receiver.
It is what it is, despite a few “quality” losses, a 1-12 football team playing out the string on a transitional season that might end with a shot to draft a franchise quarterback like LSU’s Joe Burrow.
A little while later in his presser, while discussing the limited contributions of his own team’s rookie class, Belichick swerved back into the topic of team records.
“I mean, we’re 10-3. I wouldn’t say we have a terrible team,” Belichick said somewhat uncharacteristically. “We have a lot of other good players out there, with a lot of good players that have been very productive, and we’ve won 10 games.”
They have indeed. Despite a two-game losing streak to open December – New England remains in line to secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff picture – the Patriots built up 10 wins to date, in part beating up on less-talented, less-proven teams very much like the Bengals.
So while Belichick cautioned us –and, as always he was talking to his team as well – to ignore the Bengals putrid record, he also wants us – and, as always he was talking to his team as well – to remember that even given recent struggles and offensive questions the Patriots are a very good football team. In many ways it sounded like a quick pep talk or confidence boost.
So, heading into Sunday’s matchup at Paul Brown Stadium, here are some potential keys to a battle between a game team with a good record and another with a pretty bad one.
Red zone still in focus – The Patriots offense has struggled in a variety of areas this season. One of those, one that Tom Brady has harped on at times, is the red zone. New England isn’t moving the ball as well as it has in the past and when it does get into the red zone has not scored touchdowns nearly often enough. The Patriots now have the NFL’s 27th red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on just 48.1 percent of trips and ranking 25th in terms of scoring points of any kind. One of the few areas that the Bengals actually rank quite high in is red zone defense, sitting at No. 3 in the NFL allowing touchdowns just 44.2 percent of the time. There are no obvious answers – save for maybe a little more action for N’Keal Harry – for the Patriots’ red zone woes and the challenge won’t get any easier in Cincy.
Can Julian Edelman hold up? – Edelman has been the bulk of the Patriots’ offense for much of the season. He’s shouldered the load through a chest injury and a shoulder issue. Now, he also has a knee problem. He didn’t practice on Wednesday. Sure, he’ll likely continue to gut through the pain and catch the ball. But at some point is it all too much for him? He probably should have already missed some time and maybe he’ll have to miss some moving forward. Sooner or later someone other than Edelman – and a sprinkling of James White – is going to have to step up for the passing game and the offense as a whole. Mohamed Sanu? Ben Watson? Phillip Dorsett? Harry? Somebody. Because as impressive as Edelman has been, it’s hard to imagine him keeping the fight up straight through February by himself.
Run, somebody run! – The Bengals are dead last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game and barely better in yards per attempt. Sony Michel and the Patriots have not run the ball well with any consistency this season. Those holding out hope that the offense is going to flick some switch and replicate last year’s late-season transition toward a run-first team into the postseason are running out of time. The Bengals stink against the run. The Patriots should want to run the ball. It seems too simple. Even if it’s not Michel, who continues to struggle, maybe it’s time for Damien Harris to get his shot. Somebody has to start running the ball more consistently to help out a struggling Brady-led passing game, especially against a bad run defense.
It’s all on the line – The questions about the receiving corps are fair. The issue that Michel has had trying to maximize runs is obvious. Both, though, are directly related to the struggles of the offensive line. The front hasn’t gotten enough push in the running game and has gotten pushed around too much in the passing game. Isaiah Wynn missed practice this week with an eye injury. Otherwise, the guys that Dante Scarnecchia sends out onto the field have to find a way to be a better, more cohesive unit in both the running game and in pass protection.
No charity donations – Only four teams have turned the ball over more than the Bengals this season, a team that is 30th in the league with a minus-11 turnover differential. Only one team has notched more takeaways than the Patriots, who lead the NFL with a plus-19 turnover differential. If those trends hold true it should be the biggest factor in this game playing out the way the teams’ records would indicate. It’s hard to imagine the Bengals keeping it close without some turnovers by Brady and Co. More likely, Stephon Gilmore and the New England defense keep giving the offensive extra chances and short fields. Keep the turnover train rolling.
Prediction – Let’s get this out of the way, the Patriots losing streak should end on Sunday in Cincy. If it doesn’t, holy crap will the sky be falling in Patriot Nation. I don’t expect that to be an issue. Really, New England should control the game against a far inferior opponent. I don’t care about the tight losses the Bengals have, the Patriots should handle their business. Run the ball. Take care of the ball. Keep the Bengals talented pass rush off balance. Don’t give the home crowd reason for life. The Patriots are probably not capable of the kind of blowout wins that might be expected in a matchup like this in the past, but here is no reason New England can’t put up a 27-13 controlled victory. It may not mean much in the big picture, but getting back on the winning track is a step in the right direction.