Cincinnati Bengals (6-6) at New England Patriots (11-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
LOCATION: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro MA
TV: CBS, ; DirecTV, 711
SERIES: 18th meeting -- Baltimore Ravens lead series 12-5 over the Cincinnati Bengals. The Ravens lead 7-1 in Baltimore and have won seven in a row there over the Bengals. The last six have been at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Bengals have been shutout three times and lost by a combined score of 175-64.
2004 RANKINGS: Bengals: offense 19th (18th rush, 17th pass); defense 23rd (31st rush, 12th pass). Patriots: offense 9th (8th rush, 12th pass); defense 9th (6th rush, 15th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: Getting off to a quick start is critical for the Bengals in a tough road game. If the Patriots build an early lead, they will ride RB Corey Dillon against the league's second-worst run defense. QB Tom Brady has been inconsistent in recent games, but must be careful because the Bengals aren't afraid to blitz their safeties and are third in the league with 16 interceptions. Offensively, Cincinnati will attack New England's injury-plagued secondary, especially now that WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh is providing a complement to Chad Johnson. But the Bengals still face an uphill battle against a complex Patriots defense allowing an average of 9.9 points in its past 14 home games.
FAST FACTS: Bengals: Johnson is on pace for 1,428 receiving yards, which would break his franchise record of 1,355 set last season. ... Are 4-1 when QB Carson Palmer completes at least 57.1 percent of his passes. ... Their final four opponents are a combined 33-15 (.688). Patriots: Will clinch the AFC East title with a victory. ... Have scored first in 17 consecutive games. ... Have won 17 consecutive home games.
PREDICTION: Patriots 27-17
- FS Kim Herring was added to the injury report Thursday with an Achilles
injury, but he is probable and did practice.
- CB Keiwan Ratliff might get his third start of the season at New England.
Starting cornerback Deltha O'Neal was downgraded Thursday to questionable
with an ankle injury. And though O'Neal did practice, coach Marvin Lewis said
Ratliff gives him the luxury of not hurrying O'Neal back into the lineup.
- QB Carson Palmer was announced Thursday as winner of the FedEx Air NFL
Player of the Week award for games of Dec. 5-6. Palmer completed 29 of 36
passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns in the Bengals' 27-26 victory against
AFC North-rival Baltimore Ravens. He recorded a passer rating of 127.1, connecting
on touchdown passes of nine, 12 and 13 yards.
- DT John Thornton is a favorite of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. The Patriots were interested in signing Thornton as a free agent when he left Tennessee after the 2002 season, but the Bengals were more aggressive in pursuing him.
- LB Ted Johnson, playing mostly on early downs, has thrived this season defending
the run, and after Tedy Bruschi said that Johnson might be the best linebacker
in the league at taking on blocks, Bill Belichick offered his praise as well.
"That's a real strength of his. He did it well in college; he's done
it well in the NFL. He's very instinctive in his run fits and gets off the
blocks well anticipating the runner's cuts. He's like a running back on defense."
Johnson's 83 tackles are third on the team.
- TE Daniel Graham has established himself as a physical presence on the offensive
side of the ball. Asked if Graham was one of the league's better blocking
tight ends, Belichick said. "He does a real good job. I don't rank them,
but I'm sure he's up there. He keeps his feet and sustains his blocks, which
you need to do on the outside."
- T Marques Sullivan could quickly climb his way onto the game day roster
as a backup at both tackle spots and guard. He is a natural tackle but started
16 games at guard for Buffalo in 2002. He is quickly adapting to the Patriots
offense, which has some carryover from the Giants where Tom Coughlin is the
head coach and former Patriots quarterback coach John Hufnagel is the offensive
coordinator. Sullivan spent the first 11 weeks of the season with the Giants
before being waived. Coughlin, like Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, is a Bill Parcells disciple and some of the Giants offensive terminology
is similar to New England's. Because Sullivan plays tackle and guard, he is
likely to occupy Gene Mruczkowski's roster spot. Mruczkowski has been backing
up at guard and center, but guard Russ Hochstein also backs up at center and
would be active ahead of Mruczkowski. The Patriots prefer to activate only
seven linemen on game day.
- CB Randall Gay's consistent play will give the Patriots more options and
depth at cornerback once Ty Law and Tyrone Poole return from the injury list,
which should be relatively soon. As a rookie corner, Gay has been target by
opposing offenses, but has held up reasonable well and played consistently.
His two interceptions and five passes defensed are both second on the team
and his 24 tackles are second only to Law among cornerbacks. He has impressed
the coaches with his performance after signing as an undrafted free agent
out of LSU last spring.
- LB Willie McGinest needs to 2.5 sacks in the final four games to reach double figures in sacks, something no Patriot has done since McGinest had 11 all the way back in 1995, his second year in the league. The Patriots have 37 sacks on the season from 12 different players after totaling 41 sacks from 14 different players all of last season. New England is on pace to notch 49.5 sacks, the most since it had 51 back in 1985.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
On Sunday, the Bengals will take aim at New England and its makeshift secondary with a deep pass offense that has produced 606 yards and seven touchdowns in the past two games.
New England will be without both of its starting cornerbacks. Ty Law (foot) is out. Tyrone Poole (knee) is listed as doubtful. Third corner Asante Samuel has been in and out of the lineup in the past month with a sore shoulder. Free safety Eugene Wilson is playing cornerback, opposite rookie Randall Gay. Rookie Dexter Reid is playing free safety. Wide receiver Troy Brown has been playing nickel cornerback.
The Patriots are 11-1, but coach Bill Belichick is not happy with his 15th-ranked pass defense.
"Only one team in the league's given up more big plays in the passing game than we have, so I don't know how impressive it is," Belichick said when asked if he thought his secondary had done a good job.
The Patriots have allowed 40-yard completions in five games and 30-yard completions in three more.
The Bengals will go after the Patriots secondary with Carson Palmer throwing long to wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who had 20 receptions, three for touchdowns, against the Ravens on Sunday.
But the Bengals do not expect the task to be an easy one.
"They do a great job of not letting those guys get exposed. And they know where their problems are, and they try not to let you get there," Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said. "When they do that, they are challenging your protection and making you get the ball out quick. Other times, they're playing back in soft coverage with eight people."
For an NFL record 17 straight weeks the New England Patriots have lit the scoreboard first and played from ahead. The streak is 20 when the postseason is factored in. For the most part, the Patriots have been able to stay on top once jumping there at the outset and it has been a huge factor in their success over the past two seasons.
The Patriots are 19-1 in those 20 games with the lone loss coming back on Halloween when they opened a 3-0 lead over Pittsburgh before turning the ball over on consecutive series and falling behind 21-3 in a five minute span.
But NFL teams which score first have won at .660 pace this season with an aggregate 126-65 record, which is actually down from last year when teams scoring first had a .695 winning percentage (178-78). This week's Patriots opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, has been able to buck that trend so far this year.
In Cincinnati's 12 games, the team scoring first has won only six times. The Bengals and their opponents are both 3-3 when scoring first. Last week, Cincy didn't score first and fell behind 20-3 at Baltimore before rallying to win 27-26.
"I think it's important to score first," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said, "though we have overcome the scoring first statistic a few times this year. I do think it's important and (the Patriots) do a good job of it. They don't only start fast, but they finish games too. I think that is the more important issue."
Oh yeah. They do that well too. In addition to scoring first in 20 straight games, the Patriots have won 30 straight games when leading at halftime and 37 when leading after three quarters. Their last loss when leading at the half came back on Oct. 28, 2001 when they let a 17-10 halftime lead against the Broncos slip away when Tom Brady threw four second half interceptions in a 31-20 loss.
The last time the Patriots blew a lead when leading after three quarters came all the way back on Dec. 24, 2000, the finale of Bill Belichick's first season as Patriots head coach when they surrendered 10 fourth quarter points in 27-24 loss to the Dolphins.
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