Two of the handful of projected top teams in the AFC will battle Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati, as the Patriots (4-0) take to the road for another week looking to remain undefeated in a matchup with Bengals (2-2). While Bill Belichick's team is off to its most successful start since 2007, Marvin Lewis' squad hasn't quite lived up to the preseason billing through the first month. The Patriots have some momentum coming off their best win of the season last Sunday night in Atlanta, while the much-hyped Bengals are playing mediocre football following a disappointing loss to the Browns. Both teams are dealing with some injuries and this early-season matchup just might have postseason ramifications down the road. New England is looking to keep pace with the top teams in the conference, while Cincy wants to inject itself back in the conversation in the AFC. There are plenty of ways to skin a cat, but New England will need just one Sunday afternoon. So sit back, kick your feet up and enjoy this first-weekend-of-October, festive-fall, Pumpkin-spice edition of the Patriots at Bengals Pregame Six-Pack!
1. Weapons upgrade? – Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm) and Danny Amendola (groin) will remain question marks until they return to action and prove they are healthy and ready to contribute once again. There have already been reports that Gronkowski isn't expected to play. Of course there were reports at this time last week that he was expected to play. Gronk himself said he'll play when things click and he's ready to go. Amendola seemed a bit more positive in his meeting with the media on Friday and appears to be moving much better this week as he works back to health. Clearly Tom Brady could use some reinforcements in the passing game. He's referenced that fact a number of times in recent weeks. It's obvious when you look at last week's stats in Atlanta when Julian Edelman and Kenbrell Thompkins carried the load. Getting either Gronkowski or Amendola back, or preferably both, would be a boost to an offense that's still trying to build consistency and productivity despite the undefeated start.
2. Ride the Talib train – Aqib Talib has been a hot topic this week after his impressive first month of action that's included weekly matchups with elite opponents, four interceptions and plenty of key plays to help the Patriots to the undefeated start. The story this week was that Talib deserves a big-money contract extension as he plays out a one-year, $5 million deal. That idea has been thrown around that he's the team MVP through four games. That's an honor usually reserved for Brady or an offensive player. Talib has been that good. He brings a swagger and attitude to the back end that's had a huge effect on the rest of the group. This week he should get another chance to match up, this time with young Pro Bowler A.J. Green. Green had his struggles last week against Joe Haden and will be looking to bounce back. Green's by far Andy Dalton's favorite target. Talib is playing the cornerback position better than anyone in New England since Ty Law. Keeping that positive momentum going in the back end of the defense is a key not only for this victory but continued success on defense in general.
3. Pain management – We've become numb to injury reports in New England. We expect them to be long. We expect them to include a boatload of players who are limited in practice and then questionable to play. But the list is growing by the week with some key names on there. If more of them are inactive than we generally expect it would be a bit blow to an already banged up football team. Rookie receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson were both banged up in Atlanta. The team then signed Austin Collie. That led some to speculate that one or both of the rookies might be a possible inactive on Sunday. Defensively Jerod Mayo and Kyle Arrington continue to battle injuries as key cogs. Stevan Ridley has missed practice this week and is already listed as out. It's not just the guys who are already missing time or on IR that are making injuries a major concern. It's also about the guys dealing with less notable injuries and are simply assumed to be playing. Adding a couple of them to the inactive list would make an already hurting situation even more concerning in New England. But as always, the health of so many players right now is questionable.
4. Life without Wilfork – Vince Wilfork is on injured reserve and recovering from surgery. In terms of on-field contributions in 2013, the captain is now merely an early season memory. New England didn't show too many signs of missing the big man in last week's win in Atlanta. But this is the first full week without the All-Pro, against a team that's game planned for his absence. The Bengals are also a team that wants to stay balanced and run the football. Former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the lead back, but he's averaging just 2.7 yards a carry. Rookie Giovani Bernard has added a boost to the ground game with 4.6 yards a carry on his 32 attempts through four games. Dalton isn't ready to lead a pass-first or pass-only offense, so Cincy will continue to want to run the ball. That means New England will have to stop it and do so without Wilfork. Veteran Tommy Kelly will be leaned on even more up front, as will rookie free agent Joe Vellano. We may also see more base sets against the Bengals two-tight-end looks, meaning Brandon Spikes can bring his thumping ability to middle of the defense. Life without Big V starts with a battle against a pretty physical Bengals team. Wilfork has been such a staple in the New England defense that we really don't know what the run defense will look like without him in the trenches. Next man up.
5. Roll with JE11– We don't know if Brady will get any of his weapons back in the passing game. We don't know if more weapons will be out of action on the offense. We do know that Julian Edelman is healthy right now and having a career year. He's tied for the NFL lead with 34 receptions in four games. He needs just three more to match his previous career high. He's been Brady's most consistent and reliable target. The connection/rapport the duo has probably shouldn't be surprising. They come from the same area. They share an agent. They work out together in the offseason. Heck, Edelman is apparently even coming up with a personal branding logo JE11 that's sort of like TB12's. Edelman has had his own injury and durability issues in the past, but right now he must stay healthy so that Brady has at least one option he knows he can count on. Edelman has been superb so far, and at least until others get back into action and healthy that must continue.
6. Tag team fight – Whenever we compare NFL teams we generally start at the top with a look at their coaches and quarterbacks. For example it seemed that both Mike Smith and Matt Ryan wilted in the spotlight last Sunday night in Atlanta, at least in part allowing Belichick and Brady to remain undefeated. Now we compare New England's dynamic duo with Lewis and Dalton. The quarterback has made nice strides and is decent player who's taken his team to the postseason in his first two seasons. But he's seemingly not taking the next step in 2013. As for Lewis, he's the second longest tenured coach in the NFL trailing only Belichick. Of course he's never won a playoff game and has a sub-.500 career record. He's at 2-2 with a team many thought was the most talented in the AFC. It's overly simplest to simply compare coaches and quarterbacks, but those guys still have a huge role in winning and losing in the NFL. Lewis has yet to prove he can maximize his team's talent, especially this season. Dalton has yet to prove he's taken a step from good to elite. So as is so often the case, the Patriots have the advantage in two key areas – under center and on the sideline.
Given what's happened through the first month, this game isn't as difficult a matchup for the Patriots as I expected it to be heading into the season. New England comes off a good win. Cincy comes off a bad loss. Both teams are dealing with some injury issues. Brady's banged up weapons remain a potential hurdle, but my gut tells me that Amendola might play. Either way a huge key is how Logan Mankins and the offensive line deal with Geno Atkins and Cincy's powerful defensive front. This is another chance for the New England offensive line to build on its resume and expand its reputation. If Brady has time I think he'll make some plays through the air. I think Brandon Bolden could be a solid factor as the passing back in this game to keep things moving offensively. Defensively if Talib can keep Green in check I expect the rest will fall into place. I just don't see the Bengals running it down the Patriots throat, Wilfork or no Wilfork. Put it all together and it could be another reasonably close, pretty physical battle in which the Patriots will just make a few more plays to swing the result. I'm going with a 24-16 win for New England and the 5-0 start to the season.