The Patriots are heading into a do-or-die matchup with the defending AFC Champion Bengals at Gillette Stadium with a few injury-related question marks.
According to the team's final injury report of the week, the Patriots have ruled out CB Jalen Mills (groin), WR DeVante Parker (concussion), and long-snapper Joe Cardona (ankle). New England also listed the following players as questionable: RB Damien Harris (thigh), CB Jack Jones (knee), CB Jonathan Jones (chest), WR Jakobi Meyers (shoulder), RB Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle), WR Tyquan Thornton (knee).
With Saturday's contest marking the first time Cardona has missed a game in his eight-year career, New England signed long snapper Tucker Addington to the practice squad last week when Cardona initially popped up on the injury report. Addington was briefly on the Cowboys practice squad earlier this season but hasn't appeared in an NFL game. The 25-year-old was the long snapper for Sam Houston State in his collegiate career.
"Getting acclimated," head coach Bill Belichick said of Addington on Thursday. "Timing and acclimation to punt and field goal protection. Obviously, in punt protection there's a lot more to it. Calls, assignments, coverage responsibilities, and so forth."
At wide receiver, the Patriots will play nearly their third full game without Parker in the lineup, who suffered a concussion six snaps into last Monday night's win over the Cardinals. Last Sunday, the majority of the playing time went to rookie Tyquan Thornton (60 snaps), Nelson Agholor (54), and Jakobi Meyers (40) in his first game back from a head injury.
After an anemic offensive performance in Las Vegas, the question on everyone's minds is if Kendrick Bourne (11 snaps) will play more. Bourne played 42 snaps in Arizona and finished with a season-high five receptions for 47 yards. Following an 800-yard season a year ago, Bourne's lack of involvement is another perplexing development for this offense.
The Bengals defense is rising this season to 12th in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. However, they're vulnerable to short passes with a 17th-ranked pass defense against throws under 15 air yards. If there's a formula for the Patriots offense to move the ball this week, it's attacking underneath the defense, where Bourne has been productive.
Defensively, the Patriots secondary continues to deal with the bumps and bruises of an NFL season at cornerback. Mills is already ruled out, while Jonathan Jones (chest) is a new addition to the injury report this week, and rookie Jack Jones is still working his way back from a knee injury.
The good news is that both the elder Jones and the first-year Jones practiced all week, albeit in a limited capacity. The latter was a game-time decision against the Raiders, meaning he wasn't deemed inactive until pre-game in Las Vegas. Hopefully, that means Jack Jones will be ready to go on Saturday.
New England could use Jones, 5-11, to match up on the outside against Cincinnati's bigger wide receivers. Although the rookie isn't necessarily a tall corner, he has more height and length than Jonathan Jones (5-9), Marcus Jones (5-8), and Myles Bryant (5-8).
As for the Bengals, standout edge rusher Trey Hendrickson returned to practice and will play with a broken wrist on Saturday. However, Cincinnati's defense won't have DE Sam Hubbard due to a calf injury, and starting tight end Hayden Hurst (calf) is questionable.
With the expected elevation of long snapper Tucker Addington, the Patriots have until 4 pm ET on Friday afternoon to elevate players from the practice squad and active players from injured reserve.
After returning to practice this week, punter Jake Bailey could play on Saturday. Although Bailey struggled with punting before heading to IR, his ability to handle kickoffs would provide a boost for the Pats special teams. Bailey managed touchbacks on 63.6% of his kickoffs, while kickers Nick Folk and Tristian Vizcaino combined for one touchback on 27 kickoffs in Bailey's absence.
The Patriots and Bengals will also have to manage frigid weather conditions with an expected wind chill near zero degrees on Christmas Eve at Gillette Stadium.
New England hosts the defending AFC Champion Bengals at 1:00 pm ET on Saturday.