Losing defensive anchor Vince Wilfork for the rest of the season is a huge blow, there are no qualms about it. Luckily for the Patriots, Brady has officially found his stride with the receiving corps and the defense has managed to cause a turnover in 34 straight games. New England (4-0) pulled out a narrow and impressive 30-23 victory over the talented but underachieving Atlanta Falcons (1-3) in the Georgia Dome last Sunday night. The performance was highlighted by a game ending pass deflection by Aqib Talib intended for Roddy White. Not only is Talib tied for the NFL lead with 4 interceptions, he is shutting down Pro Bowl wide receivers.
New England travels into Cincinnati to take on a (2-2) Bengals team that has taken down the Packers (34-30) and Steelers (20-10), but lost to the Bears in Week 1 (24-21) and the Browns last week (17-6). Young talent in both A.J. Green and Giovanni Bernard provide explosive weapons for third year quarterback Andy Dalton. The Patriots survived a gutsy performance against the Falcons and will be tested again on the road. The release of TE Zach Sudfeld has stirred rumblings of both Gronk and Amendola making returns this week alongside new addition Austin Collie. Since 2001, the Pats are (4-1) against the Bengals. As New England looks to stay undefeated in 2013, check out these 3 keys to victory on Sunday afternoon:
1) Establish the run: LeGarrett Blount looked like a new man under the bright lights during his 47 yard TD scamper to go up 20-10 last week. The Patriots totaled 137 total rushing yards, increasing their season average to 125 YPG – good for 11th in the league. Being able to manage the pace of the game was a huge advantage against Atlanta. New England is dangerous with a consistent running attack. Brady will always “get his”, but the Pats start to dominate when their offense is balanced. It opened up throwing lanes down the field, leading Kenbrell Thompkins and Julian Edleman to combine for 245 receiving yards. Furthermore, Brady had passes of 49, 44, 24 and 24 yards – an area he was struggling with through the first 3 games. With Bengals CBs Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick banged up, a 100 yard plus game on the ground should help secure a victory on Sunday. Expect the Patriots to favor Blount with Ridley missing 3 straight practices this week. Although the return of Amendola and/or Gronk will lead to more of a spread offense, getting it done in the trenches needs to be a priority.
2) Stay stout up front: Balance on the Cincinnati side of the ball comes in the form of the running back duo old friend BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Giovanni Bernard. The two have combined for 289 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns on the season. DT Joe Vellano stepped in nicely for Vince, recording a clutch sack but it unproven besides that series. Veterans Tommy Kelly and Rob Ninkovich need to continue their solid play in the absence of Wilfork. Chandler Jones has kept up his strong play and is an integral piece to the Patriots success this year. The Bengals like to run two tight end sets with Gresham/Effert and with Green over the top, Cincinnati is able to attack defenses from a variety of positions. Expect New England to make stopping the run and underneath passes a priority with more playing time for Brandon Spikes.
3) Convert in the Red Zone: The Patriots threw for 2 touchdowns out of 3 opportunities inside the 20, raising their ratio to 6 out of 16 on the season – putting them at 30th in the league. If there has been one weakness on offense, it’s their lack of production when it matters. New England has survived without Gronk in his sweet spot of the field but need to improve in this area if they want to compete in January. The running backs still have not crossed the goal line in the Red Zone in 2013. Expect Blount to get more opportunities this week with the aforementioned banged up Ridley. Get it done in the Red Zone and the Patriots will remain unbeaten at (5-0).
34-24 New England. Tom Brady is too much and Dalton throws two interceptions.