Bengals Are Primed to Upset Patriots

<p>The New England Patriots take on their second team from Ohio in as many weeks. Having little trouble dispatching the Cleveland Browns, they return home to host the Cincinnati Bengals. While many experts picked the Bengals to finish in the AFC North basement, they are out to prove they belong back in the playoffs. The Patriots game is an opportunity to do just that.</p><p>John MacKenna takes a look at this &quot;tougher than it looks&quot; game, in his week 14 preview. </p>

Bengals Are Primed to Upset Patriots
By John MacKenna

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is sounding the alarms on this Sunday's game against the Bengals, and he should.

"They're one of the hottest teams in the league right now and the last time we played them it didn't turn out so well," Belichick said, referring to the Bengals' 31-3 win over the Patriots in an Aug. 21 preseason game. "Offensively, they're very explosive."

Consider the following.

  • Carson Palmer has completed 51 of 65 passes in the last two weeks for 633 yards and seven touchdowns. His performance in last week's 27-26 win over the Baltimore Ravens earned him AFC Player of the Week honors.

  • Palmer made fast work of the Pats in the preseason, throwing three touchdown passes in the first half.

  • The Bengals have the one of the NFL's top receivers in Chad Johnson, and the Patriots have no shutdown cornerback on hand to keep him in check.

  • Patriots QB Tom Brady is in a slump, and if the Bengals put a few touchdowns on the board early, one has to wonder whether Brady can lead the team to a come-from-behind victory.

  • Despite the denials by RB Corey Dillon and Belichick, the Patriots might have their most serious locker room problem since Belichick waived Lawyer Milloy. In the wake of the Milloy debacle, the Patriots lost, 31-0.

The Bengals are only 6-6, and they have a terrible history against winning teams on the road, but they should be a handful for New England's pass defense. Palmer is on a roll, and he's for real. The top pick out of USC in the 2003 draft, he is agile in the pocket and tough to bring down at 6'5", 230 pounds. He has a strong arm and can throw the ball anywhere.

Against Baltimore, Palmer led his team back from a 20-3 deficit in the third quarter by going 13-for-16 for 215 yards and three touchdowns. Two of his incompletions were on spikes.

Coming off two strong performances, he might feel invincible when he comes to Foxboro, particularly given the success he had against New England in the preseason, when he began by completing 12 of 19 for 179 yards in the first half.

Also, the Bengals scored their first road victory against a team with a winning record since 1990 when they beat the Ravens. Palmer and his teammates might be hell-bent on repeating the feat this week.

The Patriots have compensated nicely in the five games they have played without starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, but if Palmer is on a roll, he might start punching holes.

Palmer will surely look for Johnson, who leads all AFC receivers with 1,071 yards and is second with 75 catches. Johnson has 20 catches for 278 yards and three touchdowns in the last two weeks.

Patriots safety Rodney Harrison spelled it out. "You're facing a Pro Bowler in Chad Johnson," he told Patriots.com. "He's got the hands, he's got the speed, he's a great route runner, he's tough, he's very athletic and he's just consistent."

At 6'1", 192, Johnson is also bigger than most of the Patriots defensive backs.

Palmer has other targets as well, including 6'3" Kelly Washington and 6'1" T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who caught 10 passes for 171 yards in last week's win over Baltimore.

The Bengals can run the ball too. RB Rudi Johnson, who replaced Dillon, has 1,105 yards on the season, averaging 4.0 per carry. If the Bengals can keep the Patriots honest against the run and Palmer has a hot hand, it could be a long day for New England's defensive secondary.

Patriots CB Asante Samuel remains questionable with a shoulder injury, so look for the Patriots to go with Eugene Wilson and Randall Gay again at the corners. That leaves the free safety tasks to converted linebacker Don Davis and rookie Dexter Reid, who looked awful last week in coverage. If Palmer reads the defense effectively and gets some protection, he is capable of exposing this huge weakness in the New England defense.

Should the Bengals start lighting up the Gillette Stadium scoreboard, the Patriots will need to respond in kind. They surely can grind out plenty of running yards with Dillon going against the second-worst run defense in the NFL (141.9 yards allowed per game).

But if the Patriots have to take to the air, they're going to need a lot more out of Brady than they've had in the last two weeks, when he has looked more like Trent Dilfer circa 2000 than the two-time Super Bowl MVP that he is. Like Dilfer, Brady is not losing games (one pick in the last two games), but he has completed only 52 percent of his passes in the last two weeks (26 for 50). He has only two touchdown passes in the last three games and has completed over 60 percent of his passes only once in the last six games.

One also has to wonder how much damage was done to team chemistry last Sunday when Belichick uncharacteristically permitted a statistical indulgence by an injured player. Dillon had accumulated 98 rushing yards and suffered an undisclosed leg injury-Dillon called it not an injury but a "situation"-in the first half last Sunday. Then midway through the third quarter, Dillon re-entered the game for one play, gained two rushing yards to make it an even 100 on the day, before returning to the sideline for the rest of the afternoon.

No one has fessed up, but the facts are self-explanatory. One can only hope that Belichick has apologized to the team for this inexplicable violation of team code.

The error must be acknowledged for the sake of LB Tedy Bruschi, who signed a below-market contract in the offseason to stay with his winning team.

For Brady, who always talks the team line and who is playing under a five-year, $30 million contract while Colts QB Peyton Manning is earning $14 million a year.

For WR David Givens, who has kept his mouth shut while seeing his receiving yards dwindle to a total of 70 in the last three games while Deion Branch has returned from injury.

For DT Richard Seymour, who patiently fills his lanes while accumulating much lower numbers of sacks and tackles than he would in a standard defensive scheme.

The Patriots have won two of the last three Super Bowls by sacrificing individual honors. When Belichick risked an injury to an indispensable offensive player for the sake of a statistical bauble, he ripped the fabric he has woven so meticulously over the last five years.

If the mistake comes back to haunt the Patriots immediately-against the team that Dillon left in pursuit of victory-the irony will not be lost on Belichick.

Notes: The Bengals are 11th in the NFL in scoring with 22.3 points a game; the Patriots are fourth-best in the NFL points allowed at 15.8 per game. … The Patriots are scoring 27.5 points a game (fifth in the NFL); the Bengals are allowing 22.7 points a game (21st the NFL). … Bengals CB Tory James is tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions. … Cincinnati's DEs, Justin Smith and Duane Clemons, have 6 and 5.5 sacks, respectively. … Rookie S Madieu Williams, whom the Bengals drafted with the second-round pick they got for Dillon, has 69 tackles and three interceptions. … The Bengals have won their last two road games. They beat the Redskins, 17-10, on Nov. 14. … The Bengals have won four of their last five games. … The Bengals are plus-six in takeaway/giveaway. They have made 16 interceptions. Palmer has thrown 17 interceptions. … The Bengals have made 29 sacks and allowed 25. The Patriots have made 37 sacks and allowed 21. … The NFL's three 11-1 teams (Eagles, Steelers and Patriots) are 1-2-3 in the NFL in sacks made.

John is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna"

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