The New England Patriots will try to rebound after suffering back-to-back losses against AFC contenders with a road trip to face the Cincinnati Bengals.
The New England Patriots are in a bit of a tailspin – by their own lofty standards, at least.
The Pats have lost back-to-back games by a scoring margin of 51-38. Moreover, the games they lost were to the Houston Texans and the Kansas City Chiefs, two other AFC division leaders who the Patriots are very likely to see again in the playoffs. If you throw in New England’s third loss of the year, back in Week 9 to the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots have been outscored 88-58 by the probable other top seeds in their own conference.
Thankfully, New England has a chance to get right before the postseason. Two of their final three games come at home, and two of their final three opponents are well below .500… with nothing left to play for this season besides draft positioning.
It all starts in Week 15 versus the Cincinnati Bengals. This will be the Patriots’ final away game of 2019. If all goes according to plan, it could also be their final away game until potentially the AFC Championship – assuming the Ravens clinch the No. 1 seed and survive the divisional round, that is. And assuming the Patriots clinch the No. 2 seed and don’t get upset themselves in the divisional round either, of course.
Andy Dalton is back as the starting quarterback for the Bengals after a brief and uninspiring experiment with Ryan Finley, the team’s fourth round draft pick this year. Finley completed less than 50% of his passes and threw two touchdowns against two interceptions in three starts versus the Ravens, Raiders, and Steelers.
In fairness to the rookie, three starts is not really a large enough sample size for someone who’s brand new to the pros. All three of those teams are playoff contenders in the AFC as well, so it’s not as if Finley really had the opportunity to ease his way in to the deep end or anything.
Regardless, Dalton is back. The Red Rocket is completing just a tad less than 60% of his passes and has one touchdown against one interception in his last two starts since being reinserted as the starter – against the Jets and the Browns – so perhaps it’s possible to argue that’s progress if you’re a Bengals fan.
Realistically, Cincy is probably trying to show off Dalton the best they can during the month of December in order to try and command a better price for him in a trade this spring. Good luck with that… especially considering that he’ll now get to face the Patriots and their No. 1-ranked passing defense this week.
No one should be surprised if the New England secondary rebounds in a big way after less-than-stellar efforts against Houston and Kansas City. Devin McCourty could very well add to his NFL-leading interception total against the turnover-prone Dalton – McCourty current has five picks this year. The longtime Patriots safety hasn’t had an interception since the Eagles game though, so now might be a perfect time to pad his stats as he sets his sights on a Pro Bowl berth.
Speaking of Pro Bowls, Stephon Gilmore is a “Gilly-lock” to make his second straight Pro Bowl (and third overall in his career). Gilmore has solidified his status as the best cornerback in the NFL today, and he should feast on a Bengals receiving chart that lacks any true elite weapons with A.J. Green still yet to play this year. Expect Gilmore to shadow Tyler Boyd most of the afternoon.
Bill Belichick will probably task Jonathan Jones with covering John Ross, since Jones is the Patriots’ fastest corner and Ross is definitely the Bengals’ fastest player overall. Jones struggled the past two weeks against Mecole Hardman and Kenny Stills, but he did a decent enough job covering Tyreek Hill at least. He should be more than up to the challenge of covering Ross.
That leaves Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, and the Patriots safeties to take care of Tyler Eifert, Alex Erickson, and Giovani Bernard. Overall, the New England secondary should have no problems eliminating the threat of this Cincy receiving chart – it’s easily one of the worst position groups the Patriots will face all year.
The biggest challenge for New England defensively is containing Bengals halfback Joe Mixon. The third-year player out of Oklahoma is easily the most talented player on Cincinnati’s offense with Green out indefinitely. Belichick has already gone to great lengths to praise Mixon’s abilities, so it’s safe to expect that Belichick and the New England defense will make shutting down the Bengals ground game (and Mixon by extension) their top priority on Sunday.
For New England, the time is now to get right offensively. The Bengals defense ranks dead-last in terms of yards allowed per game, so the Patriots aren’t going to have a better opportunity than the one they have this week in Ohio to kick their offense into gear at long last. Expect to see a heavy dose of whoever Belichick and Josh McDaniels elect to be their lead running back on Sunday – whether it’s Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, or Brandon Bolden.
Heck, at this point it might even be Tom Brady – the 42-year-old was the second-leading rusher for the Pats against Kansas City last week.
All joking aside, if the New England offense can’t find their stride against the woeful Bengals, this Patriots team might not deserve a first-round bye in the playoffs to begin with. It’s one thing to struggle to keep up with Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs, Lamar Jackson’s Ravens, or Deshaun Watson’s Texans… it’s quite another if Brady and the Patriots offense struggles to keep pace with Andy Dalton’s Bengals on Sunday.
Hopefully that’s not a storyline we’ll have to cover this time next week.
Here’s all the info you need to take in this week’s game:
Date: Sunday, December 15, 2019
Kickoff time: 1:00 pm EST
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
Stadium: Paul Brown Stadium
TV channel: CBS
Live stream: fuboTV (try for free)
Betting odds: New England -9.5 (Over/Under: 40.5), courtesy of The Action Network
Weather updates: 33 degrees F; mostly cloudy; 0% chance of precipitation
The Patriots can clinch a postseason spot with a win against the Bengals on Sunday. They cannot clinch the AFC East just yet, but with a win in Cincy and then a win at home in Week 16 against the visiting Buffalo Bills, New England would lock up their division at last.