Finally, Tom Brady has come back to Foxborough! (Read in your best Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson voice.)
After missing two home preseason games this summer and then sitting out the first four games of the regular season to his Deflategate suspension, Brady returned to the football field in fine fashion in last Sunday's impressive blowout win in Cleveland.
Now, the man, the myth and the legend will run out of the home tunnel in front of what should be a frothing home crowd for the first time since last January. It should be an energetic, exciting, memorable moment on the list of many that Brady has created over the years at Gillette Stadium.
Oh, yeah, and the Patriots (4-1) will look to continue to roll early in the season against a Bengals (2-3) team that's floundering a bit following last Sunday's loss in Dallas.
The beauty of Brady being the center of attention and the top storyline of a game is that it really doesn't district from the task at hand. He's proven time and time again that he can harness his own emotion and that of the crowd for productive purposes. And his coaches and teammates are as skilled as any at minimizing any potential perceived distractions.
PFW's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 6 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Plus, as Brady showed in Cleveland, he's hit the ground passing this season. Certainly the Browns defense was a bit overmatch and the Bengals should present a stiffer challenge. But Brady also will continue to build and evolve with a core of weapons that might just be as deep as ever.
Bill Belichick spent the entire week reminding his team how talented and capable the Bengals are as a team and a coaching staff. That message will resonate. But the reality is that Brady is back to business at home in Foxborough this Sunday and business should be booming.
It was just two years ago that Brady and the Patriots were under fire four games into the season and headed home to Gillette for a game before which Belichick declared his team was "on to Cincinnati." That contest saw Brady, Rob Gronkowski and the rest dismantle the Andy Dalton-led Cincy squad to ignite a Super Bowl run.
New England isn't as questioned this time around, but Brady's return should create a similar emotional environment that may make life tough on Marvin Lewis' big-game-averse Bengals who haven't won a game in Foxborough since 1986.
Brady's back. At home. Sunday.
Brady's back! - Brady went from the street to the huddle last week to put up 406 yards, three touchdowns and a 127 passer rating. Hey, gotta crawl before you can run. So what can TB12 do in his encore, back to work in front of the faithful? Well, he's never scored fewer than 35 points against the Bengals in three previous battles at Gillette. Never had a rating below 110.7. Never thrown an interception or had fewer than two touchdown throws. Now, he's going to be amped up and bring a healthy core of Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and James White to battle with him on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. The Bengals have the No. 11 pass defense based on yards, but they have allowed opponents to combine for a 96.5 passer rating while allowing 11 touchdowns compared to 4 picks. That came against young or suspect quarterbacks, other than Ben Roethlisberger. Brady should be ready to spread and shred the Bengals, as he so often does. And they should prepare to be shredded.
Deal with A.J. - The scariest thing at Gillette won't be fans dressed up in clown costumes (please don't!) but rather Bengals receiver A.J. Green. The perennial Pro Bowler is off to a great start this fall with 36 receptions for 518 yards, second in the NFL in both categories, and a pair of scores in five games. Belichick raved this week about Green's ability to make plays at all three levels - short, intermediate and deep - which can't be said of all top NFL playmakers. He has impressive length that allows him to go get contested balls. Green has a great rapport with Dalton and is clearly the quarterback's top option, especially with some offseason turnover on the wide receiver depth chart. He'll be the focal point of the Patriots coverage, but the question is how New England chooses to address the matchup. Will Matt Patricia task Pro Bowler Malcolm Butler with chasing Green? Will it be Logan Ryan with safety help at all times? Will it be a mixture of coverages? Dealing with Green is the first step toward victory for a Patriots pass defense that's had its ups and downs early this season.
Pressure points - While many think of pass defense as mostly being about coverage, the pass rush is a key component. It's also an area that needs improving for the Patriots. New England has just nine sacks in five games. That's a pace for just 28 over a 16-game span for a team that notched 48 sacks last fall. Jabaal Sheard leads the Patriots with three sacks. But a team that's 25th in the league in sacks per pass play could certainly get a boost from Rob Ninkovich getting back in his own groove in his first home game since returning from suspension. The good news is the Bengals have allowed 17 sacks, ranking 29th in the league in sacks per pass play on offense. Their line has been suspect, including in the middle. New England will never be a super aggressive, blitz-happy defense, but it still needs to get more consistent pressure to help out the pass defense as a whole. This might be a good week to take a step in that direction, taking advantage of some outside and inside matchups that might fall in the Patriots favor.
TE party continues - Asked to describe the Bengals defense, Gronkowski said they are "big and they thump hard." That may be true, but can they cover the Patriots varied group of weapons, including the Gronkowski-led tight end duo that's the best in the game? Probably not. Gronkowski deemed himself healthy as can be expected this week, "I'm out there now, I'm rolling now, so there's no excuses." He did miss practice on Friday to an illness, but was officially questionable for the game and the obvious hope is that he'll be ready to go on Sunday. He's still looking for his first touchdown of the year and hasn't been kept out of the end zone for this long since 2011. No one is more due. Oh, and Martellus Bennett is ready to keep his train o' production running. Brady can utilize these two targets in so many ways, including changing plays at the line based on opposing personnel and scheme. He'll get another shot to unleash the beasts against the physical Bengals.
Third and what? - Despite Dalton's solid numbers (a 96.2 rating through five games) and Green's production, the Bengals have curiously the 30th ranked third down offense. Good news for them is the Patriots have the No. 27 third down defense. So it will be weakness vs. weakness. Cincy needs to stay on the field in order to try to keep up with a Patriots offense that should put together drives and put up points. New England needs to get off the field in order to give Brady and Co. extra chances and a shot to build a lead. Whichever team improves on its weakness on the NFL's money down will take a nice step toward victory.
Men in the middle - There is no doubt that any nightmare scenario for the Patriots includes the Bengals impressive defensive front controlling the game and ruining everything that Brady and Co. want to do. Belichick raved about Geno Atkins' disruptive abilities this week. The Pro Bowl defensive tackle has 2.5 sacks, but he can ruin a game far more than the numbers indicate. Atkins and Domata Peko are a huge challenge for the Patriots young interior line group of Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason. The edges also have issues, especially at right tackle where either Marcus Cannon or Cameron Fleming will have to deal with Carlos Dunlap. Oh, and the Bengals like to add to the front's disruption with the A-gap blitzes that are all the rage these days across the league. They send guys up the middle or just fake it to help create opportunities elsewhere. Dante Scarnecchia and his line have a lot to prepare for in this one. Win this battle and you probably win the game.
Prediction - Brady has played the Bengals six times in his career and scored 34 or more points in five of those games, all wins. He doesn't seem to mind playing Lewis' crew, especially in Foxborough. The Bengals are coming off a tough loss in Dallas and are looking up from losing record in the AFC North. On paper they have a solid offense and defense, but they are in the bottom third of the league in scoring and middle of the pack in points allowed. Conversely the Patriots are No. 4 in points allowed and, with Brady back under center, have to be considered likely to score 30-plus points most times they take the field. New England needs to keep Green in check and keep Brady upright. Accomplish those two goals and everything else should fall into place. Brady will spread the wealth and move the ball. That's what home fans want and what they should expect. In the end something in the range of a 31-13 victory for the Patriots is extremely easy to envision. Brady is back at home where he has the best winning percentage (.866) in the history of football. He should add to that success on Sunday. The home crowd will like what it sees.
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