The Patriots have a decision to make in their final three games following a monumental collapse in Las Vegas.
Bill Belichick's team can allow Sunday's disastrous ending to define their season, meaning they won't make the playoffs. If the Pats don't rally around each other to right their wrongs, New England, who faces three opponents with a combined 29-13 record, will finish the season with four-straight losses and enter an uncertain offseason likely filled with significant changes.
The other path the Patriots can choose is to come together in their darkest hour and compete down the stretch to make a legitimate playoff push. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots have a 16.8% chance of earning an invitation to the dance. Yes, those are long odds. But it's still possible with a few wins against AFC opponents ahead of them in the standings.
Although a different approach on offense is necessary regardless of how the season ends, New England having resilience while fighting to the finish will show the character of their current roster and quell concerns about the overall buy-in with Belichick at the helm. If things go in the wrong direction, there will be serious questions about the coaching staff and personnel from the top down.
To say these are a big three games for Belichick, his coaching staff, and the leaders on this team is an understatement.
Moving on to this week's opponent, the Patriots begin a season-defining stretch against the defending AFC champions, the Cincinnati Bengals. After a bumpy start with two-straight losses out of the gate, the defending conference champs are competing for the number one seed by winning ten of their last 12 games and have now won six in a row heading into Week 16.
Cincinnati turned their franchise around by selecting college teammates Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase in back-to-back drafts. The dynamic duo has catapulted the Bengals offense to a red-hot finish en route to Super Bowl LVI and are now picking up where they left off with the fifth-ranked offense in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric this season.
Defensively, the Bengals may not have players who are household names. But they're a well-orchestrated group under defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo with above-average and under-the-radar blue-chip talents propping it up 12th in DVOA after a terrific 2021 postseason.
The Patriots had a chance to come home from their west coast trip in control of their destiny for a Wild Card berth. However, that went down the drain when the Pats blew a 24-17 lead with 3:43 remaining in the fourth quarter against the Raiders.
New England made the path challenging for themselves. Only they can salvage their season, starting with stealing a win against a Bengals team that is better on paper and playing significantly superior football offensively this season.
Here's a three-step plan and key matchups as the Patriots try to pull off a home upset on Saturday:
1. Playing Man Coverage Against Burrow, Chase, and the Bengals is a Death Sentence
The best way to describe the Cincinnati offense is that they have better players than you, and they know it, so that's how offensive coordinator Brian Callahan calls the game.
By knowing quarterback Joe Burrow will hunt the matchups with his wide receiver trio of Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, Callahan and head coach Zac Taylor don't let complicated schemes get in the way of their players doing what they do best. For example, Chase ranks third in the NFL in receiving touchdowns (eight) when aligned out wide, where he is a nightmare for opposing cornerbacks on go routes, back-shoulder fades, and slants, per NextGen Stats.
|Stat||Bengals vs. Man Coverage||NFL Rank|
As a result of their dangerous skill players and having an accurate downfield passer, Burrow is one of the NFL's best quarterbacks against man coverage. The Bengals QB is third in passing yards per attempt (8.7) and fifth in passer rating (116.2) against man coverage. Furthermore, Burrow and the Bengals shred single-high safety shells (104.1 rating, 5th) and make teams pay for bracketing or doubling Chase by going to Higgins or Boyd against single coverage.
The killer for defenses when they play man coverage, or single-high zone structures (cover-three) against the Bengals is that Burrow and Chase attack the single coverage on the outside with excellent precision. Above, the Browns rotate into a cover-three scheme, which is essentially man-to-man on the outside, and Burrow connects with Chase on a beautiful back-shoulder fade for a chunk play.
When teams decide to play man coverage with brackets or double-teams, Burrow is excellent at finding the one-on-one matchups and lets whoever doesn't draw the help go to work.
Here, the Bucs bracket Chase's slant route at the bottom of the screen and double Higgins at the top of the screen in the red zone. With Cincinnati's top two wideouts taken out, Burrow finds Boyd working an out-breaker from the slot for six.
New England continues to play man coverage at a near-league-high rate (40%, 5th), and it uses single-high shells (cover-1, cover-3) at the highest clip in the league this season (69.7%). However, that should change in this week's game plan, especially because they'll likely lack size at the cornerback position to go up against Higgins (6-4), Boyd (6-1), and Chase (6-0).
With starting corner Jalen Mills's status up in the air due to a groin injury, the Pats will likely field a cornerback trio that is severely undersized with Jonathan Jones (5-9), Myles Bryant (5-8), and rookie Marcus Jones (5-8). The Patriots must avoid putting their smaller corners in situations where the Bengals catch-point artists can rise above the defense to make plays downfield.
2. Patriots Defensive Front Must Exploit Weak Links Along the Offensive Line
Although this offense presents challenges against any defense, there's a formula to keep the Bengals scoring in a manageable range.
Step one, as you probably guessed from the first section, is playing minimal amounts of man coverage and heavily favoring split-safety shells, where Burrow's yards per attempt drops by nearly a full yard (7.8, 16th) and his passer rating against two-high shells decreased to 95.4.
The other key is to exploit a Bengals offensive line that is improved from last season's playoff run but remains a weakness. According to a stat compiled by The Athletic's Ben Baldwin, the Bengals cumulative pass-blocking rating that combines PFF charting and ESPN tracking data is 31st in the NFL.
Before the Bucs offense put them on a bunch of short fields in the second half, Tampa Bay's defense was cooking in the first two quarters in Sunday's loss to Cincinnati with zone coverage and simulated pressures, which the Pats are running as well.
In this play, Tampa Bay starts in a two-high shell and runs a replacement blitz to stress the offensive line. With the right defensive end dropping in coverage while the off-ball linebacker blitzes, the protection slide leaves the linebacker unblocked. Then, the "buzz" safety takes away the inside stick route that would've been a quick outlet for Burrow, who has to take a sack by Lavonte David.
On third down, the Bucs used a six-man pressure package to create one-on-one matchups for their pass rushers. With a defender dropping into a low zone to take away the middle of the field, depending on the movement of the offensive line, the pocket collapses around Burrow for another sack.
Along those lines, the expectation here is that we could see the Patriots run simulated pressures out of their "drop-8" coverages where they play cover-two in the backend. By dropping the edges into coverage and blitzing linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley, the pass rush scheme still puts the protection in a bind, while the Pats have eight defenders in coverage.
Tampa Bay's coverage defenders deserve credit for competing against the Bengals receivers. But the zone-heavy plan and an aggressive pass rush forced Burrow into an average target depth of 5.5 yards. By eliminating big plays and shots for Chase and Higgins on the perimeter, the Bucs defense was rolling until Tampa's offense started turning the ball over.
3. Bucs QB Tom Brady Gave Patriots Blueprint to Attack Bengals Pass Defense in Vulnerable Areas
With their most recent matchup against another pocket passer, Tom Brady's approach to attacking the Bengals defense sans the turnovers is a solid starting point.
Cincinnati is at the forefront of the two-high safety zone craze taking over the NFL. As Belichick told reporters this week, Lou Anarumo doesn't change much week-to-week, meaning this isn't usually a game-plan defense.
The Bengals might play more man coverage to force the Pats wideouts to uncover, which they'll do situationally, like on third downs. But their coverage style is built to take away big plays with split safeties to force the dink-and-dunk. As a result, Cincy's defense is fifth in DVOA against deep passes. However, they're only 17th versus short passes and allow 8.6 yards per play-action pass attempt (27th in NFL). In other words, take profits underneath, exploit short zone defenders with play-action, and you should move the ball.
The Bucs leaned into the formula with a series of quick-game concepts from the gun, as Brady found openings with slant-flat and snag concepts that put short zone defenders in conflict and out-leveraged man coverage with slant patterns.
Tampa Bay also had tremendous success with play-action, which we've been clamoring for all season with this Patricia-led offense. Brady went 10-for-14 for 145 passing yards off play-action.
The Bucs used their duo-action schemes to pull the second-level of the Bengals defense towards the line of scrimmage and then ran deeper glance or skinny posts against single-high structures.
Another play the Bucs hit for a big gain was a Y-delay scheme where the tight end initially engages in a block and then releases when Brady keeps the ball.
The problem the Patriots offense could have this week is that the Bengals might game plan for the quick game, knowing that's all the Pats have in their bag. Still, if Cincinnati sticks to its typical brand of coverage, New England's passing attack could get back on track by following Brady's blueprint.
Key Matchups in Patriots-Bengals
Pats C David Andrews vs. Bengals NT DJ Reader: Reader is one of the best defensive lineman I've seen on film this season. His power is the standout trait, but Reader moves extremely well laterally and plays with good leverage and explosiveness to penetrate the line. He's a game-wrecker.
Pats CBs Jon and Marcus Jones vs. Bengals WR Tee Higgins: last week, the Patriots had a good plan to challenge Davante Adams with cloud coverage and one-double schemes. But, eventually, the Raiders secondary pass-catchers burned them with the attention on Adams. You worry about the same thing happening with Higgins and Boyd. Higgins, in particular, has the size that the Pats can't match. It's a difficult matchup.
Pats EDGEs Matthew Judon & Josh Uche vs. Bengals OTs Jonah Williams & La'El Collins: Cincy has built up the interior of their offensive line. However, they're still shaky at tackle, where Collins and Williams are big names but aren't playing up to their reputations. Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney gave them fits, as did Bucs edge rusher Joe Tyron-Shoyinka. The Pats need Judon and Uche's best. The former didn't have much gas in the tank for the Raiders final drive, while the latter wasn't on the field for the Cole TD.