The day is finally here. The wait is finally over. The quest for a championship begins today in Foxboro, MA as the new-look Bengals face a suddenly young New England team.
Both clubs are coming of division championships. The Bengals completed their first division sweep in franchise history on their way to their second AFC North crown in five years. The Patriots took their division in 2009 again, in what is almost a yearly exercise in the AFC East. Both teams are hoping to get a bad taste out of their mouths as each club was summarily dismissed, at home, in the first round of the playoffs. Both teams have explosive wide-outs, and prototype, star-quality quarterbacks.
Despite the hard work of the coaches, the relative calm of the offseason and the burgeoning confidence the Bengals have enjoyed, they have a tough test ahead of them against the cagey and experienced Pats. Looking at the 2009 team statistics, New England is better in virtually every category. Tom Brady is a first-ballot hall-of-famer, and Bill Belichick is perhaps the greatest coach in NFL history.
It’s the proven winner against the up-and-comer.
Nonetheless, there are many reasons for optimism in Who-deyville. The Bengal defense comes into the contest as healthy as they’ve ever been, and even more talented than last year’s group that finished 4th overall. The Pats will throw the ball all over the field, usually with Brady in the shotgun. Having a healthy group of pass rushers, including DE Antwan Odom, who will start despite rumors about a positive test for banned substances, should help the team hurry Brady. Fellow rushers Michael Johnson, Jonathan Fanene, Robert Geathers, and Geno Atkins should also benefit from a depleted Patriots offensive line, with Logan Mankins sitting out over his contract and his replacement, Nick Kaczur out with a back injury.
While New England’s strength is in the passing game, the best part of the Bengal defense is the secondary, where CB’s Johnathan Joseph, Leon Hall, and Adam Jones will provide a capable challenge to Randy Moss and Wes Welker, who will be playing just 8 months after knee surgery. On paper at least, the Bengal defense is a solid matchup against the powerful Patriot offense. Marvin Lewis has to like his chances there.
On the other side of the ball, the Bengals will clearly try to run the ball down the throats of a suddenly young Patriot defense. Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott will get opportunities to gash between the tackles, hoping to draw in New England’s safeties. Meanwhile, two of the NFL most productive wide receivers will test two of the most inexperienced starting corners in the league. Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens are surely liking their chops at the prospect of lining up against Darius Butler and Devin McCourty. The Pats’ starting corners have a total of 6 starts between them, and McCourty is a rookie. This should be a good matchup for QB Carson Palmer. Look for the Bengals to go with a ball control, run-first offense to start the game, but they will attack New England’s 3-4 defense in the passing game as needed.
Special teams looks like a draw, with New England’s kicking game consistent and reliable. The story of the preseason for Cincinnati was the fantastic kick returning of several players, including WR Quan Cosby, Jones, and rookie WR Jordan Shipley.
Despite all of these apparent advantages, I’ve learned before never bet against Bill Belichick or Tom Brady; especially when they’ve had six months to game plan. The Patriots are at home where they traditionally play very well.
This will be a very tough test for the Bengals. Their defense will have to show up and play at the level that’s been expected. The re-tooled offense will have to keep up with New England’s high-octane attack on the scoreboard. If the Bengals can win, it could make a strong statement to the NFL that they’re more than some “Batman and Robin” talk, and a legitimate contender for the Super Bowl. With one of the toughest schedules in the league ahead of them, this game—win or lose—will be a good litmus test for the future.
Prediction: Bengals 27-Patriots 24