Welcome to Season 8, Episode 14 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
Wait, what? Whaddaya mean Marvin Lewis isn’t the Cincinnati Bengals’ head coach anymore? Ol’ Blank-Stare Marv was there so long that I’m pretty sure he was on their sideline when Boomer Esiason was just some blond kid named Norman. Lewis provided such mediocre results (131-122-3 in 16 years, 0-7 in the playoffs) that you figured he’d forever remain a part of the Bengals Way, which also includes cheaping out on talent and losing a whole lot. (Team motto: “We’re The Browns, But Without Occasional Hilariously Misguided Expectations.’’)
Lewis was fired last December and was replaced by Zac Taylor, a 36-year-old whose qualification to be an NFL head coach is that he was the quarterbacks coach for flavor-of-2018 Sean McVay with the Rams. I’d call that benefiting from reflected glory, but coaching the Bengals is glory for no one right now.
Taylor’s team lost its first 11 games of his tenure before beating the Jets, 22-6, in Week 13. The Bengals reverted to form last Sunday, losing to Cleveland, 27-19, to drop to 1-12. On the plus side, Louisiana State’s Joe Burrow, who looks like the next generational quarterback, has not yet indicated he would refuse to play in Cincinnati, a la John Elway with the Baltimore Colts in 1983. So, the Bengals have got that going for them.
As for the Patriots, well, you know: They have become the most frustrating 10-3 team you’ll ever see. They come in having lost two straight and three of five, and while the defense remains championship-capable, the offense too often looks like something Akili Smith would have directed, averaging 17.6 points per game over those last five.
The line can’t keep Tom Brady upright, the running backs find no daylight, and the receivers other than Julian Edelman can’t get open consistently. It’s hard to fathom that this offense still ranks eighth in the NFL at 26 points per game, but it’s true. Unfortunately, recency bias probably has a point right now — this offense doesn’t deserve faith until it proves worthy again.
On top of all that, the Patriots found their way into another off-field controversy this past week when Bengals personnel accused a Kraft Sports Productions video team of illegally taping their sideline during the Browns game. The Patriots say the film crew, which included independent contractors, was there to record a feature on a scout for the team’s “Do Your Job’’ web series. It’s a plausible explanation; I believe it’s true.
But perception isn’t always based on the truth. Because the Patriots have their Spygate history, this has morphed, in public perception, into Spygate the Sequel. We’ll see if NFL shield fetishist Roger Goodell sees it that way and whether it has consequences, but for now it’s noise that even the most resolute teams would have trouble shutting out. This is a swell week to play the Bengals.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started . . .
THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY
Mohamed Sanu — In the increasingly desperate quest to find Patriots offensive players who might be able to contribute more to the cause over the season’s remaining weeks, the temptation was to mention N’Keal Harry first. And I do believe the rookie receiver, who has two terrific plays (touchdown vs. Dallas, touchdown-if-the-officials-didn’t-botch-the-call against Kansas City) and one obviously terrible one (getting beaten to the football by defensive back Bradley Roby for an interception vs. Houston), will help, provided Josh McDaniels cooks up some creative yet uncomplicated ways to use him. But the best hope for an increased and important contribution comes from Sanu. It’s easy to let slip from mind given that he has been an afterthought in recent weeks, but he already has been a productive member of the offense. He has just six catches on 10 targets for 31 yards in his last three games, and he missed the Dallas game with a high ankle sprain suffered against the Eagles. But in his second game as a Patriot in Week 9 against the Ravens, he had 10 catches on 14 targets for 81 yards and a touchdown. He’s playing against the franchise that drafted him in 2012. If his ankle is feeling better, this would be a fine time to get him going again. (Side note: I’ve been practically begging in recent weeks for McDaniels to have Sanu throw a pass — he’s 7 for 8 in his career for four touchdowns. But this probably isn’t the team to do it against. Sanu was 5 for 5 for two touchdowns in his four years as a Bengal.)
Andy Dalton — I’m admittedly not that up on advanced statistics in football beyond the goofy Next Gen Stats on NFL.com that tell you stuff like how many miles per hour Devin McCourty ran on an interception return. So I’m not sure whether advanced metrics in football have the concept of “replacement level’’ like baseball does, meaning a readily available, minimum-cost player that acts as a placeholder for a better and pricier player. (I always picture Darnell McDonald when I think of this.) I bring this up because the kind of players you might think of as replacement level as NFL quarterbacks actually make pretty good coin. (See: Brian Hoyer, Indianapolis Colts, $9 million guaranteed.) At his worst — such as when he was benched for Ryan Finley, a player so nondescript that one suspected Ryan Finley was an alias, earlier this season — I’ve thought of Dalton as replacement level. But he’s not that, at all. He’s usually mediocre, occasionally pretty good, and very, very well-compensated (he’s in the next-to-last season of a six-year, $96 million deal). Dalton has some decent numbers despite losing his job for a month, averaging more passing yards per game (275.7) than luminaries such as Brady, Drew Brees, Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers. In an age in which the NFL is taking another concept from Major League Baseball — tanking for a high draft pick — it’s curious that the Bengals have turned back to Dalton, who gives them a somewhat better chance of winning and slightly worse chance of landing the No. 1 pick and finding his replacement.
Sony Michel — It’s the story of his season in both the micro and macro sense. Just when you think he’s making progress, he ends up going nowhere. Michel has had good games this season, most recently three weeks ago when he had 85 yards on 20 carries in the win over Dallas. But those occasional flashbacks to a promising rookie season have been lost amid the many disappointments. Michel has 53 yards on 15 carries in the losses to Houston and Kansas City since his encouraging performance against Dallas. If Michel can’t do it against Cincinnati, the worst run defense in the league (156.7 yards per game), it’s time to wonder whether he’s going to do anything at all this year. Maybe we’re already past that time.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
Actually, this week’s real grievance remains pending since we’re waiting to learn exactly how arbitrary Goodell’s punishment will be for this taping situation, if there’s a punishment at all. (A low-six-figure fine seems about right, unless there’s something incriminating to be revealed.) So consider this the placeholder grievance: It’s a small frustration that the Patriots have had to sacrifice so much talent over the years because of the consequences of scandal. They lost their own first-round pick in 2008 for Spygate. Players selected soon after they would have made their choice included Matt Forte, Brandon Flowers, and Jordy Nelson. They lost another first-rounder (2016) and a fourth (2017) as Deflategate punishment, which was absurd. Players they could have taken with that first-round pick include Michael Thomas, Derrick Henry, and Chris Jones, the Chiefs lineman who was in Brady’s face all game last Sunday. Chances are they missed out on some helpful talent.
Patriots interior offensive line vs. Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins
In the loss to the Chiefs, Brady took his lumps, getting sacked three times, enduring six quarterback hits, and evading pressure pretty much every time he dropped back. Center James Ferentz, filling in for Ted Karras (knee), was consistently overwhelmed by the Kansas City interior line, with Jones storming into the backfield often enough to have a continuous stream of trash talk going with Brady. The good news is that Karras was back on the practice field midweek and appears to have a good chance to be back in the lineup Sunday. The bad news is that it’s become clearer and clearer that David Andrews — whom Karras replaced in the preseason when the starting center and captain was lost for the season after blood clots were discovered in his lungs — was more essential to the Patriots’ offensive success than many of us realized. The Bengals’ defense — which is 32d against the run (156.7 yards per game) and 19th against the pass (242.8) — isn’t drawing comparisons to the Patriots’ stellar defense, but then again, neither was the Chiefs’, and they stymied Brady and Co. for most of the game last Sunday. And the Bengals do feature one of the best interior linemen of his generation in Geno Atkins, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection who at age 31 is having another fine year. Atkins has 4.5 sacks this season, and when he watched film of the Patriots line’s performance against the Chiefs, he couldn’t be faulted if he expects to add a couple more to his collection Sunday.
PREDICTION, OR ISAAC CURTIS IS THE SECOND-MOST UNDERRATED RECEIVER IN HISTORY (AFTER STANLEY MORGAN, OF COURSE)
One of the standard go-to defenses among Patriots fans when faced with conjecture that Bill Belichick must have been aware of the sideline taping was to snort and say something like, “Why would he want to tape the Bengals? They’re 1-12!’’ Now, I believed Belichick when he said that he had “100 percent zero involvement’’ with the situation. But Patriots fans shouldn’t be disparaging the Bengals in an attempt to stick up for their own team, either. Anyone who has paid attention to Belichick’s approach the last 20 years knows he does not take any opponent lightly, even one that is 1-12. To dismiss the Bengals is to dismiss Belichick’s determination to never underestimate any opponent.
Also: The Bengals aren’t terrible, as far as 1-12 teams go. Seven of their losses have come by 8 points or fewer. Dalton is competent (that’s better than replacement level), and he has decent weapons in running back Joe Mixon (1,019 total yards, 6 TDs) and Tyler Boyd (73 catches, 833 yards). Their defense is . . . well, it’s not great, ranked 31st in total yards allowed (399.5) and 23rd in points allowed (25 per game). But it’s aggressive, and it will get after Brady.
The last time the Patriots played in Cincinnati was Week 5 in 2013. They were 4-0. The Bengals were 2-2. And yet the home team won, 13-6, keeping the Patriots out of the end zone all day. This one isn’t going to go quite like that. The Patriots have something at stake — a playoff berth will be clinched with a win, and they’re hungry to end a two-game losing streak. They’ll meet those modest goals, but all of the questions that have popped up about this team over the past five weeks will not be put to rest. Patriots 24, Bengals 13
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