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Welcome to Season 11, Episode 15 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup …
Forget about the Patriots offense. (All in unison now: Brother, how we wish we could!) That’s not getting repaired this season. The best we can hope for quarterback Mac Jones right now is a modest success or two over the remaining three games, a warm, mind-clearing offseason respite at St. Somewhere, and the introduction to an experienced, competent offensive coordinator when he returns.
That shouldn’t be too much to ask, Bill Belichick willing. What is too much for the Patriots’ overwhelmed, under-coached second-year quarterback is to ask him to go throw-for-throw and touchdown-to-touchdown Saturday afternoon with a Bengals’ team that looks capable of a second straight Super Bowl appearance.
Led by franchise quarterback Joe Burrow, who carries himself with the confidence of Joe Namath and the poise of Tom Brady, the Bengals have won 10 of 12, including six in a row. They’re coming off a 34-23 win over the Buccaneers in which they picked off Brady two times, forced him to fumble twice, and scored 34 straight points in the second half.
The defending AFC champions lost their first two games while Burrow regained his strength after an offseason appendectomy, but they’re peaking at the right time. Burrow, who has thrown 31 touchdown passes — more than four times as many as Jones — has a cadre of excellent receivers at his disposal, including the sensational Ja’Marr Chase, and running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine keep defenses honest.
Barring staggering improvement in about five different offensive aspects over the past week, the Patriots won’t be able to keep pace with the Bengals’ fifth-rated offense (26.4 points per game). But the Patriots’ defense, which is tied for seventh (19.2 points allowed per game), is coming off an impressive performance in slowing down Raiders stars Davante Adams (four catches, 28 yards) and Josh Jacobs (93 rushing yards, 23 after halftime) last week.
Their ninth-ranked run defense (110.3 yards allowed per game) should be able to contain Mixon and Perine, forcing Burrow and his receivers to beat them. Chances are they will eventually, but it will be much more interesting to discover whether the Patriots’ defense can befuddle the Bengals at least for a little while than it will be to watch the offense settle for field goals in a game where they’re going to need touchdowns.
Kick it off, Folk, and let’s get this thing started …
Rhamondre Stevenson: If it feels as if I have the second-year running back listed in one of these three spots every week, that’s for two reasons. 1.) I’ve come to appreciate him more and more as this season has played out as he took on a massive workload in a depleted backfield behind an inconsistent line in an offense whose passing game is a league-wide punchline … and he’s excelled and excelled some more, even when he’s had to fight through injury. 2.) Who the heck else from the offense has been worth watching on a week-to-week basis? Michael Onwenu?
Stevenson’s performance last Sunday against the Raiders was, save for getting the lateral madness started, extraordinary given the circumstances. He ran for 172 yards, including a 34-yard touchdown burst in the fourth quarter that put the Patriots ahead, on a bad ankle that kept his status uncertain even after the game began (he didn’t get his first touch until around the four-minute mark of the first quarter). It’s easy to forgive him for his brain-lock on the lateral because he’s one Patriot who has deserved better all season.
Even while stuck with the massive degree of difficulty that is being the one obvious weapon on an “offense” “coached” by Matt Patricia — Stevenson’s jersey number is 38, but it might as well be replaced with a bull’s-eye for all the defensive attention he draws — he is putting together one of the most impressive seasons by a Patriots running back in a long time. He needs 86 yards to clear 1,000 for the season, he’s averaging 5.0 yards per carry, and he leads the Patriots with 60 receptions, third among all NFL running backs.
Stevenson is listed as questionable for this one because of his ankle injury. It’s presumed he’ll tough it out yet again and play, but the Bengals’ run defense does present more of a barrier than the Raiders’ did. Led by rangy linebacker Logan Wilson (106 tackles), the Bengals rank eighth in the league in rush defense (109.6 yards per game).
Ja’Marr Chase: The Patriots’ defense is in the middle of a prolonged stretch of dealing with a currently elite or extremely accomplished receiver every week. It started in Week 9, when the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson tormented them for nine catches, 139 yards, and a touchdown. In Week 10, it was the Bills’ Stefon Diggs (7-92-1), and then the Cardinals’ DeAndre Hopkins (7-79-0, one crucial fumble) the following week. Last Sunday, the Patriots held the Raiders’ Davonte Adams to four catches for 28 yards, which was particularly impressive considering he’d had 735 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns over the previous six games.
Now they must deal with the dazzling Chase, who teamed with Jefferson and Burrow on Louisiana State’s loaded 2020 national championship team, and in the coming weeks they’ll have to deal with the Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill and the Bills’ Diggs again. Perhaps at some point along the way here, Bill Belichick will have an epiphany and say to himself, “Hmmm, maybe we should get someone like this ourselves.”
Despite not playing from Weeks 8-12 while recovering from a hip injury, Chase is the Bengals’ leading receiver with 71 receptions on 110 targets, and his 881 receiving yards are only 13 fewer than fellow receiver Tee Higgins, who has played every game. The Bengals have a receiving corps to envy, with slot receiver Tyler Boyd hauling in 50 catches for 690 yards, 50 more receiving yards than the Patriots’ top receiver, Jakobi Meyers (640).
The Patriots are nicked up in the defensive backfield, with Jalen Mills ruled out and Jack Jones and Jonathan Jones questionable. The Bengals’ quality depth should be able to expose the Patriots’ thin cornerback depth chart, particularly Myles Bryant, who struggled against the Raiders.
Josh Uche: It’s too bad Uche, arguably the No. 1 breakthrough Patriot of the season, didn’t begin his new habit of devouring quarterbacks a week or two sooner, because he might have joined teammate and fellow QB tormentor Matthew Judon in earning a Pro Bowl selection. But Uche’s 10.5 sacks have all been bunched into the last seven games, beginning with his first sack of the season in Week 8 against the Jets. No NFL player has more since Week 8.
Uche is a force unto himself — it’s a blast watching him get low and rapidly turn the corner on left tackles that all of a sudden look like they’re playing on roller skates — but he has undoubtedly benefited from the attention Judon draws on the opposite side. Of Judon’s 14.5 sacks, which are four short of Hall of Famer Andre Tippett’s franchise record of 18.5 set in 1984, 8.5 came before Week 8, when Uche began his emergence. In total, Uche and Judon have totaled 25 of the Patriots’ 48 sacks, third-most in the NFL.
It’s crucial to any chance of victory the Patriots might have for Uche and Judon to make Burrow constantly aware of their presence. It is possible — the Bengals’ offensive line, which was upgraded in the offseason with additions that include ex-Patriots guard Ted Karras — still allows Burrow to get hit too often. He’s been sacked 37 times this season, though 13 of those sacks occurred in the first two games of the season.
I’ve been searching for the statistic that best confirms two things: the ineptitude of the Patriots’ passing game and the reasons for hope with the defense. And I think this is it: It’s conceivable the Patriots finish the season with more defensive touchdowns (they have five after Kyle Dugger’s pick-6 against the Raiders) than Mac Jones has passing touchdowns (he has seven in 11 games). Just imagine what the Patriots’ defense might do if they got to play against grievance emeritus Matt Patricia’s offense.
It probably hasn’t stopped me from using it in a column or two through the years, but I’ve never much liked that oft-quoted Bill Parcells line, “You are what your record says you are.” I mean, it’s true, obviously, but it leaves out all nuance and intuition when it comes to assessing the state of the team you follow.
The Patriots have seven wins, seven losses, and at least a puncher’s chance of reaching the AFC playoffs. But we’ve watched them. We know better. They probably have to win two of their remaining three games to remain in the picture, and right now, it’s hard to fathom them winning more than one. Or even one.
The meltdown against the Raiders devastated their chances, and the Bengals — who feature the kind of potent offense the Patriots used to have for so many years — will probably end all suspense. The Patriots will hang around for a while, but by the time this one is over, we’ll have been reminded of how far away they are from being a true contender again. Bengals 37, Patriots 15
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