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Game Matchups: This one will come down to protection

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WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN


The Bengals have been average against the run this season, perhaps because they've had a double-digit lead much of the time and were more concerned about defending against the pass. Expect Cincinnati's run defense to stiffen if, as expected, middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict returns for this game. Burfict has been dealing with concussion issues and did not play in Cincinnati's victory over Tennessee and missed practice time leading up to the New England game. Finding a consistent running game has been among New England's problems this season. The Patriots problems in the running game were particularly evident in their victory over the Raiders, when 29 of their running plays (not including kneel downs) failed to gain more than 2 yards. ADVANTAGE: BENGALS

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WHEN THE BENGALS RUN


The Bengals have a good one-two backfield punch in Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, but the running game has been mediocre thus far. Cincinnati's offense is in the middle of the pack in most of the major rushing categories: 16th in total yards (365), 15th in yards per game (121.7) and 23rd in yards per attempt (3.6). The Bengals certainly aren't lacking talent. Bernard rushed for 880 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie last season, and Hill, a rookie out of LSU, is averaging 5.1 yards per carry this year. Bernard has three of the team's five rushing touchdowns this season. It's the most rushing touchdowns the Bengals have had through the season's first three games since 1986. Meanwhile, the Patriots have struggled to stop the run in both of their losses and appear to be searching for the right scheme to fit their personnel. Look for the Bengals to improve against the struggling Patriots front. ADVANTAGE: BENGALS

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WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS


Protecting the quarterback and finding depth at receiver are New England's primary concerns in this area. New England continued to play musical chairs with its offensive line Monday night against Kansas City, and no reliable target has emerged other than wide receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski, although Brandon LaFell showed signs of development. The Bengals have an aggressive front seven and have recorded seven sacks in their three games. Outside linebacker Carlos Dunlap has three of those seven sacks. The Bengals have also intercepted six passes in their three victories. Safety George IIoka leads the way there with two interceptions, both of which came against Atlanta. This one will come down to protection. ADVANTAGE: BENGALS

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WHEN THE BENGALS PASS


Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton seems to be on the same page with first-year offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Dalton has completed 55 of 84 pass attempts for 722 yards and two touchdowns. He's been intercepted once. He entered the bye week ranked second among NFL quarterbacks in yards per pass attempt (8.6). The Patriots will also have to defend one of the NFL's top receivers in A.J. Green, who was bothered by a toe injury earlier this season. Green is averaging 19.4 yards per catch (12 receptions for 233 yards) and would appear to be just the type of receiver for Darrelle Revis to take on one on one. The Bengals will still be without tight end Tyler Eifert, who suffered an elbow injury in the opener against Baltimore and isn't expected back until Week 10. The Bengals haven't given up a sack this season, something that will have to change for the Patriots to succeed. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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SPECIAL TEAMS


The premier matchup here could be Cincinnati's punt coverage against Edelman and New England's punt return unit, Cincinnati has allowed 10 yards on four punt returns through its first three games, and Edelman is among the best punt returners in the game. Bengals punter Kevin Huber has placed eight punts inside the 20-yard line with no touchbacks. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick downed two of those punts inside the 5. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski has been consistently good, and has made his last 27 kicks in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati's Mike Nugent has made 7 of 11 field goal attempts this season, but has missed three of five kicks from 40 yards or beyond. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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OTHER FACTORS


Cincinnati's bye week came early, which is less than ideal, but it did give the Bengals two weeks to prepare for this game. Couple that with a short week for the Patriots, who played in Kansas City on Monday night, and Cincinnati would seem to have a clear advantage. The bye week also allowed a couple of key Cincinnati players to get healthy. Wide receiver Marvin Jones (broken foot) didn't play in Cincinnati's first three games, but could make his return Sunday night. In addition, Burfict is expected to return after missing most of the last two games while recovering from a concussion. Cincinnati held New England to six points when the teams met last season, so the Bengals should enter this game as a confident bunch. ADVANTAGE: BENGALS

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