For a team that's generally been able to ignore the noise and keep an even keel over the years, this has been a pretty tumultuous week in New England. Last Monday night's embarrassing loss in Kansas City seems to have shaken Bill Belichick's defending AFC East Champion squad. Now the Patriots (2-2) return home on a short week for another primetime affair that all the world will be watching on Sunday night. Marvin Lewis had an extra week to get his undefeated Bengals (3-0) ready for this matchup with the perennial AFC power. While the Patriots may be a stumbling team right now, Cincinnati will still come in looking to prove something on the road as it takes another step toward earning true contender status in the conference. It's beginning to get that us-against-the-world feel for New England. The calendar has turned to October with a quarter of the season in the books. This could very well be a battle between a couple playoff hopefuls to close out a full Sunday of NFL football fanaticism. Until the after-dark kickoff of this one, enjoy this Oktoberfest, foliage-in-full-effect Bengals at Patriots Pregame Six-Pack!
- Hole shot** – In motorsports, the hole shot is the competitor who gets the best start. The Patriots have not gotten a hole shot in four games this season. New England has gone three-and-out in each of its four opening drives. Tom Brady and Co. have trailed each time, including three 7-0 deficits. On the other side of the ledger this week, Cincinnati has outscored its three victims to open the season by a combined 19-3 in the first quarter and 44-3 in the first half. The Bengals like to run the ball, like to play from ahead and control the way the game is played. If the Patriots can't get off to a better start than we've seen through the first month, it will play right into the hands of the talented visitors. Belichick often says that the Patriots always try to start fast, but you certainly couldn't tell it by the opening-drive production we've seen this season. The start will be as important in this game as ever. Getting off to a good start would be a good way for the Patriots to start the ball rolling on what would be a rare home upset victory.
2. Time, time, time – That's what Brady needs to work. It's what his receivers need to get open. It's what the offensive line hasn't been providing through the first month. The Bengals have always had a strong defensive front and like to put pressure on the passer. The New England line faces more questions than ever. Not only are there the struggles to deal with, but Cameron Fleming missed practice all week with a finger injury after the rookie made his first career start in Kansas City. That means we'll see another different lineup again this week as continuity and success elite the front. The line continues to rotate as the coaches seemingly continue to search for a lineup that works. Geno Atkins is coming off a torn ACL from last season that's keeping him from being his elite self early in the year. But he's still a major challenge for the interior of the Patriots line, including rookie center Bryan Stork and whoever else gets the call at guard. Carlos Dunlap has three sacks in three games and presents a challenge off the edge. Wallace Gilberry and his 1.5 sacks, too. Regardless of the challenges coming from the Bengals, New England just needs to get its house in order up front or it could be a long night, in its house. Giving Brady a comfortable pocket would be a nice change. Giving Stevan Ridley some holes to work with against a defense that's allowing 5.1 yards a carry on the ground would also be a new wrinkle. There are plenty of problems in New England's offense these days, but it would easier to work on all those other issues if the line got its stuff together up front in both running and passing situations.
- On Island time?** – Darrelle Revis' first month in New England hasn't exactly been the stuff of legend. He's been a bit underwhelming. He's spent more time in zone and more time giving opposing receivers soft cushions than would seem to make sense for a $16 million-a-year cornerback. He's not even being used to man up with opposing top weapons as often as Aqib Talib was a year ago. One of the guys Talib did match up with was A.J. Green. The Bengals elite young receiver is tied for the team lead with 12 catches. He's averaging nearly 20 yards a catch, thanks in large part to a 77-yard touchdown. He's Andy Dalton's favorite target. He's also seemingly the perfect target for Revis to be matched up with. Time to prove that Revis is worth his money by making Green work hard to earn his money in this one. Then we can see if Revis' lackluster start is about how he's being used or about how good he is at this point. If he can take Green away, it would take a nice load off the rest of the defense, especially in the potential debut of Brandon Browner as he returns from suspension.
4. Rush to improve – The Bengals are never shy in sharing their philosophy on offense – and it all starts with running the football. They've created a little thunder and lightning combo with quick youngster Giovani Bernard and big-bodied rookie Jeremy Hill. Bernard is averaging only 3.4 a carry, but does have three touchdowns and 55 carries in three games. Hill has two scores and an impressive 5.1 average on his 26 attempts. After watching the way Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis ran all over the Patriots last week, the Bengals duo has to be licking their feline chops heading into this one. The Patriots are allowing 4.4 yards a carry on the season, but things were particularly ugly against the Dolphins and Chiefs, both games in which Chandler Jones seemed to struggle in action as a 3-4 end. He's just not physically suited fighting tackles from the 5-techinique. The simple answer would seem to be more work in 4-3 fronts, but that may not be what Belichick wants at this point. Regardless of the scheme, Jones, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and the rest of the front seven lineup need to be more stout. If teams are able to run the way K.C. did, it will make for long nights and won't matter whether the pass defense can do its job or not. Tacking on blocks and making tackles are about as basic as defensive football gets. The Patriots failed in both areas last week, badly.
- Turnovers tell all** – It's rather obvious to say that turnovers are one of the most important stats in the NFL. It's one of the most direct indicators of success and failure, winning and losing. Both the Bengals and the Patriots have been good in terms of overall turnover differential to start the season. Cincinnati has an NFL-best plus-six turnover differential through three wins. Andy Dalton's lone interception is the only turnover for the Bengals. The Patriots have five giveaways -- all five coming in their pair of losses, all five coming from Brady. New England's plus-three differential is tied for seventh in the league. In terms of takeaways, both teams have been impressive. Each is tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions as a team. If the Patriots can force the Bengals out of their early-season zone of ball security it will go a long way toward giving the home underdog a much better chance of breaking free from its early-season malaise and getting on track against a playoff-caliber opponent. But if the Bengals take care of the ball, regardless of what the Patriots do in terms of giveaways, it's probably going to be difficult for New England to get the job done based on all the other questions the team faces right now.
- Just win, baby!** – Talk is cheap. Ignoring the noise is a great idea. Bouncing back is important. So is showing resiliency. But even Patriots captains like Brady and Matthew Slater were not exactly sure what to expect from New England this week and moving forward. There has been plenty of blame to pass around this month. That includes players, coaches and personnel moves. That includes offense and defense. It's been ugly across the board at times. The one thing that can cure all and lift all boats is winning. The Patriots return home looking for a boost from a home crowd. They have something to prove. There may be a unifying effect with the all the criticism and reports surrounding the team. If they can focus that energy and use it as motivation it certainly could be a tool to take to battle with the Bengals. Analysis, talk and reasoning aside, New England simply needs to come out and play a passionate, competitive, physical football game and get back on the winning track to fend off the early negativity that's brewing. Otherwise things are only going to get harder in terms of external factors in the coming weeks.
When the schedule came out this looked like a potential battle of playoff contenders. The Bengals have opened the year living up to that prediction, but the Patriots have not. But it's certainly way too early and too small a sample to say that New England is a pretender rather than a contender. The resume and image that the Patriots bring to every game will have Lewis' team lathered up and still looking to prove something. A win in New England will certainly polish the Bengals early season shine. So I expect the Bengals, coming off a bye, to be more than prepared for battle. They have a solid defense and an offense that's chugging along with Dalton managing it all, including managing to not make mistakes. If the Bengals play like they can, I think this is a tough matchup for the Patriots, as we saw a year ago in Cincy. I don't think the Patriots problems in protection, passing efficiency and run defense are going to be all fixed in a single week. I don't think Brady and his receivers are going to hit a comfortable stride in one week. I expect this to be a physical slugfest and I'm not sure the Patriots are ready to win that kind of game right now, even at home. People continue to point to past success in Foxborough as a reason for high expectations in this battle. But Belichick has taught us all over the years that what happened last year or past years is not really a factor in the here and now. In the here and now I think the Bengals are the better team. I expect them to control the game with the run and throw enough to score. I expect them to pressure Brady. Put it all together and I think it will end up as something like a 27-16 win for the visitors. The Patriots will fight, but it won't be enough to get the job done given all the struggles that exist at this point.