Gillette Stadium – the Patriots are heading into a must-win scenario against the defending AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals on Christmas Eve at Gillette Stadium.
With the team ruling out wide receiver DeVante Parker (concussion) and cornerback Jalen Mills (groin) earlier this week, it's mostly positive news for New England's game-day inactives as wide receivers Jakobi Meyers (shoulder) and Tyquan Thornton (knee) are active after being listed as questionable on the final injury report of the week. However, the Pats will play another week without RB Damian Harris (thigh) and rookie cornerback Jack Jones (knee).
The game-day inactives for the Patriots are as follows: CB Jack Jones (knee), WR DeVante Parker (concussion), CB Jalen Mills (groin), RB Damien Harris (thigh), WR Raleigh Webb, DT Sam Roberts, and DB Joshuah Bledsoe.
Starting in the defensive secondary, the Patriots will be short-handed once again against a potent Bengals passing attack that features arguably the best trio of receivers in football. Although second-year corner Shaun Wade is active, Mills (6-1) and Jack Jones (5-11) are New England's two biggest corners who are regular contributors on a weekly basis.
Even physical corners with enough size struggle in man coverage against Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. The two biggest names in Cincy's three-headed monster are excellent at turning contested targets into receptions at the catch point. As we wrote in Scouting the Bengals this week, Saturday's matchup could be another zone-heavy game plan for Bill Belichick's defense, where they can attempt to avoid leaving their smaller corners on islands.
The Pats corners played sides in last Sunday's loss to the Raiders since primary boundary corners Jonathan Jones (5-9) and rookie Marcus Jones (5-8) have similar skill sets. With both CBs winning with quickness and instincts, there wasn't much reason to match them up from a playing style standpoint with Las Vegas's receivers. One would expect the same formula this week, as the Pats starting corners will again be at a size disadvantage.
New England could also aid the backend with a productive pass rush, which should come after Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and a Cincinnati offensive line that is still a work in progress. Unfortunately, it was overshadowed by how the game ended, but the Patriots defensive front got a boost from second-year DT Christian Barmore's return last week, and the simulated pressures they ran throughout the game affected Raiders QB Derek Carr in a positive way for the defense.
If we had to venture an educated guess, another two-high safety plan where New England keeps seven or eight defenders in coverage by using simulated pressures would be the blueprint.
Moving over to the offense, quarterback Mac Jones will have his full complement of healthy pass-catchers outside of Parker. At the same time, the Pats will roll with rookie running backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris behind breakout star Rhamondre Stevenson with Damien Harris inactive.
After elevating him from the practice squad on Friday, WR/TE Scotty Washington (6-5, 225 pounds) is active for the Patriots. The team lists Washington as a wide receiver, but if he plays on offense, it might be in a pseudo-tight end role similar to former Pats wideout Lil'Jordan Humphrey.
Ultimately, the Patriots will need to throw the ball to win against the Bengals high-powered offense. Still, with the temperatures in the teens in Foxboro, both teams might have to lean on the running game, where Washington could have a role on early downs as a run blocker.
Lastly, New England's other practice squad elevation kicker Tristian Vizcaino is active. Vizcaino will likely serve as a kickoff specialist to take those responsibilities off place kicker Nick Folk's shoulder. The Pats will also have backup long-snapper Tucker Addington snapping on punts, and field goals in this one since veteran LS Joe Cardona (ankle) is now on injured reserve.
The Patriots playoff hopes sit at 18% with their 7-7 record, according to Football Outsiders. Another loss would essentially eliminate them from playoff contention, even if they wouldn't mathematically be eliminated from the postseason at 7-8. In other words, this is a big one.
New England hosts the Cincinnati Bengals with kickoff at 1:00 pm ET on Saturday at Gillette Stadium.