The New England Patriots (4-0) were able to respond to most of their critics on Sunday as they won a tough game in the road against the Atlanta Falcons. The first half wasn't a pretty one, but due to questionable coaching decisions by Falcons' head coach Mike Smith and Tom Brady starting to create a legitimate connection with Kenbrell Thompkins (127 receiving yards and a TD), the Pats found a way to stand undefeated.
Unfortunately, the win did not come without injury. Defensive tackle and leader Vince Wilfork suffered an achillies injury in the 1st quarter and was placed on injured reserve Thursday afternoon. However, the team has received positive news about the potential return of Danny Amendola from his groin injury. As for Rob Gronkowski, there has been reports about the team and Gronk's “inner circle” disagreeing on when he should return to the lineup. Let's just say I doubt he returns this week. In other news, the Pats waived tight end Zach Sudfeld and signed former Colts' wide receiver Austin Collie.
As for the Patriots' opponent, New England travels to Cincinnati (1:00 ET, CBS) to take on the 2-2 Bengals. I was a huge believer in the Bengals coming into the season, but they have been the true definition of inconsistency. After a great comeback win against the Packers in Week 3, Marvin Lewis' team followed that up with a disappointing 17-6 loss against the Brian Hoyer led Cleveland Browns. Cincy's strength is their defensive line, led by Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap (5.5 combined sacks). I expect a tough physical game on Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium.
Here are my three keys to Sunday afternoon's game:
Patriots Can't See “Greener” Pastures: You can't preview the Bengals without talking about their best player, wide receiver A.J Green. The third year wide receiver out of Georgia has established himself as one of the best receivers in the NFL. He does lead the team with 26 receptions, including 7 catches last week against one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, Joe Haden. Green will be likely defended by Aqib Talib, who has three interceptions on the season. The problem for Green is his quarterback has been inconsistent this year. The “Red Rifle”, Andy Dalton, has just five touchdowns to four interceptions and has been sacked seven times. If Dalton can't get Green the football, look for the throws to Cincy's two solid tight ends in Jermaine Gresham and rookie Tyler Eifert.
Law Firm Running Out Of Cases: Patriots' fans remember the days of the “Law Firm” BenJarvus Green-Ellis getting carries out of the backfield. This is the second season Green-Ellis is in Cincinnati and he appears to be wearing down. Green-Ellis only has 2.7 yards per carry on the season and has resulted to nothing more than a guy who can run it into the endzone from the goal line. The key back is rookie Giovani Bernard. Bernard is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and has a touchdown reception on the year. Look for Cincy's offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to try to get Bernard involved to test the Patriots' run defense without Vince Wilfork. New England did not struggle against the run last week, but the Falcons got away from rushing the ball with an injured Steven Jackson and Matt Ryan threw the ball 54 times. I don't expect Andy Dalton to be anywhere near 50 rushing attempts this week. Look for Bernard to make some explosive plays on Sunday.
Burfict Is Perfect?: He definitely isn't perfect, but Bengals' linebacker Vontaze Burfict has proved a lot of people wrong since he was drafted out of Arizona State. Burfict was red flagged for character issues, but his play has spoken for itself. In just his second year in the NFL, he leads the league in tackles with 42. He also played 81 snaps two weeks ago against the Packers.
The problem this week for Cincy is that the linebacker missed practice on Thursday with a neck injury. However, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said he is confident Burfict will play on Sunday. If Burfict doesn't play, look for former Giants' linebacker Michael Boley to get significant playing time.
This is going to be a tough, physical game for the New England Patriots. Even though the Bengals have not exactly played up to their potential, this is a game where their physical defensive line can cause problems for Tom Brady. If I was playing a doctor on television, I would bet Danny Amendola plays before Rob Gronkowski this week. Also, keep an eye on running back Stevan Ridley who has missed practices this week with a knee injury. That being said, the Bengals could be without cornerbacks Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick who have also missed practice this week.
This game will come down to the 4th quarter, but the Patriots have forced turnovers in 31 games. Expect that streak to reach 32 games this weekend as the Patriots will barely remain undefeated.
PATRIOTS 20 BENGALS 17