When the schedule was announced in April, this one looked like it could be a shoot-out.
All indications now are that it will be.
New England's prodigious offense has scored 38 points in each of its first three games. And with Rudi Johnon, Cincinnati's starting running back, likely out for Monday night's game, the Bengals may have to throw more than their original game plan might have called for.
If that's the case, it will be even more imperative for New England's defensive secondary to shut down the Bengals' Pro Bowl WR Chad Johnson.
When the Pats have the ball, they'll have to continue keeping opposing defenders out of QB Tom Brady's face. As we've seen (though not so far this season), when teams pressure Brady, that's their best chance of beating the Patriots.
Keys to the Game
Defense: Keep 85's numbers down
He likes to call himself "Ocho cinco," a Spanish tribute to his jersey number 85.
"It was good to be with him out at the Pro Bowl," head coach Bill Belichick said of Johnson earlier this week. "He has a lot of energy. He likes football. He has fun out on the field."
"Maybe it's my personality," Johnson wondered during his conference call with the New England media.
"Maybe it's the fun I bring to the game. Maybe it's the fun I'm going to bring to the game Monday night. I'm not sure what it is. He speaks highly of me, he's given me a lot of credit for what I've done since I've been in the NFL.
"I had a chance to talk to him and pick his brain a little bit down at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii this past season, and he's a great coach - a great person to be around."
"He really has fun playing," Belichick continued. "I don't think he has an edge at all. I really don't. He's just having fun."
And he loves to put up numbers - gaudy ones.
Like two Sundays ago, for instance, when Chad Johnson grabbed 11 catches for 209 yards and two scores versus Cleveland.
Or last season, when he shattered the Bengal's record for receiving yards in a game with 260. Or the fact that he's the only player in NFL history to lead either the AFC or NFC in receiving yards for four consecutive seasons.
Having already become the Bengals' all-time leader in receiving yards after just two games this season, "Ocho cinco" is poised to find his name at "numero uno" on Cincinnati's career catch list, as well.
Twice in his career, Johnson has scored three TDs in a game; on a half-dozen other occasions, he's found the end zone twice in a game. His career-long catch of 82 yards in October of 2003 went for a touchdown against Baltimore. He also has more 100-yard games than any other Bengal.
It's still early in the 2007 season, but Johnson is already on pace for another Pro Bowl year. And with fellow Pro Bowlers Rudi Johnson (no relation) and Carson Palmer in the Bengals' backfield, and 1,000-yard receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh on the other side of him, Johnson is part of a Cincinnati offense that is as potentially explosive as New England's.
But if any team has Chad Johnson's number, it's the Patriots.
Consider his career stat sheet in three previous games versus New England: 11 catches, 144 yards, 1 touchdown. Not exactly the kind of performance to which Johnson has become accustomed.
With a stout run-stuffing front seven and a history of successfully pressuring Palmer, the Patriots should be able to focus their defensive backfield on eliminating the Johnson threat.
If that's the case, "Ocho cinco" could once again end up doing "nada mucho."
Offense: O-line must keep Justin Smith at bay
In 2001, following his record-setting junior year at the University of Missouri, Justin Smith declared himself eligible for the NFL Draft. The Cincinnati Bengals thought enough of the All-American defensive end to make him the fourth overall selection that year.
As is often the case with players taken that high, Smith held out until the day before the season-opener. Needless to say, he didn't play in that game.
That was the first - and last - time that he has missed a game in his NFL career. The durable Smith has been a consistent force on Cincinnati's defensive line ever since, more than earning himself the money he held out for as a rookie.
He's started every game since October of '01, the longest such streak on the Bengals defense. In 2006, his career-high 110 tackles were tops among the Bengals defensive line (the fifth consecutive season he's led the unit) and second overall on the team.
He's been the Bengals season sack leader three times. He finished last season with 41.5 total sacks in his career, enough to move Smith into fourth place on Cincinnati's all-time sack list.
In last year's regular season meeting with New England, Smith didn't take down Tom Brady, but he did record 11 combined tackles, his second-highest total all season.
"A good player. Athletic, like a lot of guys we see over there. Fast. He has some power."
That's how Belichick described Smith during his Friday press conference.
"They drop him into coverage," Belichick continued, "which gives their defense some versatility. They're a 4-3 team, but having a player like that gives you an element of a 3-4 defense, a guy being able to take a defensive end and put him into pass coverage and not really have to worry about it.
" It's not like it's a huge mismatch in coverage because he's athletic enough and experienced enough that he could do a good job of those things. I think he gives them a good pass rusher. He gives them a good, talented player that gives them some versatility and enables them to do other things in their defense because of a player like that. He does a good job."
Smith may not exhibit the flashiness of a Shawne Merriman or the big-play potential of an Aaron Schobel. But his steady performance has been good enough that the Bengals didn't want him going anywhere. When his contract expired this past offseason, the team decided to apply the franchise tag on him.
Back to Smith's rookie season for a moment.
That 2001 season-opener, the only game he's ever missed, just happened to be against New England. The Patriots won't be so lucky this time around.
Special Teams: Continue making plays
This unit hasn't surrendered a big play yet.
K Stephen Gostkowski's deep kickoffs have helped, but when other teams attempt returns, the other 10 players on the Patriots coverage teams have been in excellent position to make tackles.
P Chris Hanson did his job last weekend, keeping his punts high and short (i.e., unreturnable) to avoid the Bills' playmakers from doing their job.
We all remember CB Ellis Hobbs' record-setting kick return in Week 1. And WR Wes Welker has steadily been gaining extra yardage on his punt returns. That trend needs to continue to help set the Pats up with good starting field position.
Intangibles: The Monday Night Factor
New England has a losing record (13-21) all-time in Monday Night Football games, but a winning one (6-4) since Belichick took over.
And in their previous two MNF affairs, the Pats have scored 31 points. Both of those games were victories on the road, too (at Minnesota and at the Jets).
They're also 12-8 in games against Cincinnati, including winning 5 of the last 6.
Look for the Pats to score early and often in this visit to Paul Brown Stadium.