Coming off two-straight losses, the 10-3 New England Patriots head to Cincinnati needing a win against a 1-12 Bengals team. The Patriots' grip on the second seed in the AFC is down to just a one-game lead, but they still control their fate when it comes to the invaluable playoff bye. Win the last three and they get a week off in early January. Lose just once and they're likely playing on Wild Card Weekend for the first time in a decade.
On paper, the Bengals don't look like a huge challenge, but not much has been easy for the Patriots offense this season. Throw in an active and aggressive Bengals defensive front four that will target the Pats' inconsistent offensive line and it's not hard to see this being a close game despite the disparity in records.
We're still waiting for a game where it all clicks for the Patriots offense and it's getting close to now or never, especially with Buffalo's talented defense coming to Foxboro next weekend. Nothing would serve the Patriots better than to finally have a game of consistent offensive success and some feel-good moments that they can build off of.
The wild cards are the Patriots defense and special teams, which have been making game-changing plays all season long. That alone might be enough to get the win once again, especially against one of the lowest-ranked offenses in the league, though the Bengals special teams are among the best. But just for once it would be nice not to have to rely on them.
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While everyone would love to see an offensive explosion against the Bengals, getting the win is what matters most and given what we know for sure about the 2019 Patriots, it's likely that the defense will lead the way. The Cincinnati offense is the kind of offense The Boogeymen teed off on for the first two months of the season. They're 30th overall in DVOA, 29th passing and 26th running. They're 30th in turnover differential and 21st on third down. Their two best players are obvious and the depth behind them is minimal.
After a second half to build off of against the Chiefs, the defense should have their confidence back and it would be reassuring to see them completely shut down the Bengals in this one.
Offensive Line Come Together
The list of questions being asked about this offense is long. What's up with Sony Michel? Can anyone step up outside of Edelman and White? Will they get any significant production from the tight end spot?
But the most important and impactful question is if the offensive line can finally come together? Tom Brady has been under duress too much this season, already surpassing his sack numbers for all of last year. If there's one way for the offense to look worlds better, it would be if the o-line would stop taking turns blowing blocks and assignments. Far too often there are free rushers coming in on Brady like gangbusters.
Some inconsistency is the norm for September and October but it's now December and it's time for the protectors to get on the same page and start giving the offense time to make plays.
Finish in the Red Zone
If there's one statistical area where we could convince ourselves this will be a good game it's in the red zone where the Patriots 27th-ranked offense will face the Bengals 3rd-ranked defense. This is the worst Patriots red zone offense since 2003 and their lack of finish will cost them their season if they don't figure out how to get the ball into the end zone.
Nothing sums the problems up more than having a first-and-10 from the 12-yard-line on the final possession against the Chiefs and failing to finish. Of all the Patriots statistical problems, third down (17th in the NFL) and red zone are the most glaring.
Remove Mixon and Boyd
The statistical leadership of Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd is overwhelming and for a team like the Patriots that likes to take away an opponent's strengths, those two players will have a major target on their back. The Bengals should anticipate this kind of gameplan and the Patriots will need to be ready for their inevitable response -- focusing on throwing to Giovanni Bernard and tight ends Tyler Eifert and C.J. Uzomah.
That kind of attack can take the Patriots linebackers and safeties out of their comfort zone, where they can dictate matchups and attack. This is how the Bengals can have success moving the ball, including taking some RPO tactics that have been effective by recent opponents. More practice against that kind of gameplan will be useful, but it starts with eliminating Boyd, likely with Gilmore, and stopping Mixon on the ground.
Even if this is a huge breakout game the Patriots won't get much credit. Win big and they should've. Win close and it's another frightening example of a team that is trending in the wrong direction as the playoffs approach. Lose and well, Wild Card Weekend here we come.
Still, there's plenty of reason to believe the Patriots offense will get on track this weekend. It likely won't get any easier this season and if they can't do it now they likely never will. But they're much better than they've shown in recent weeks against the iron of the AFC and it won't take much for the kind of win that injects a dose of positivity into New England.
It might not be a 30-point-plus explosion but it should be better than what we've seen, and with the defense and special teams leading the way, the Pats should roll.