NFL Preview - New England (4-0) at Cincinnati (2-2)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Tom Brady has the New England Patriots undefeated heading into one of their best months of the season.
And it looks like he is just getting started.
Brady will try to guide the Pats to their fourth ever 5-0 start this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium against the Cincinnati Bengals, who hope to contain the decorated signal-caller after struggling against lesser-heralded competition last weekend.
Offseason departures and injuries left Brady with minimal experienced weapons to work with at the onset of the season and the former two-time MVP failed to eclipse 300 yards passing in any of his first three games of the season.
Still, New England found ways to win and then got a bit of vintage Brady in last Sunday night's 30-23 road win over the Atlanta Falcons. Brady threw for 316 yards on 20-of-31 passing, completing a pair of touchdown throws without getting picked.
Brady threw TD passes to tight end Matthew Mulligan and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins and also got help in the form of a 47-yard scoring run by LeGarrette Blount.
A 49-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski put the Pats up 30-13 with 6:18 to play, but the Falcons scored 10 straight points and were charging late before cornerback Aqib Talib came through with a game-sealing breakup in the end zone to thwart Atlanta's comeback bid.
"We got to do a better job of finishing out the game, but we did a good job putting ourselves in that position, 17-point lead with six minutes to go in the game," said New England coach Bill Belichick, who won his 209th career game to tie Chuck Noll for fifth place on the NFL's all-time coaching wins list. "Obviously, could have played a little bit better at the end, but good to be 4-0."
Talib also had an interception in addition to knocking down four passes, while Thompkins led the Pats with 127 receiving yards on six catches. He was targeted 11 times, while Julian Edelman had seven receptions for a career-high 118 yards.
Brady continued to lean on the duo while wide receiver Danny Amendola missed his third game in a row due to a groin injury. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, meanwhile, has yet to play this season following multiple offseason surgeries on his forearm as well as one on his back.
Gronkowski could again miss this game, making it even more surprising that the Pats are off to their seventh 4-0 start and first since 2007, when they went undefeated up until a loss in the Super Bowl.
And October is usually when Brady puts on his Superman costume. The Pats are an NFL-best 35-7 in the month since 2003 and have won 26 of their last 30 games in October.
That should be of some concern to the Bengals, who had a two-game win streak snapped when they lost 17-6 last weekend to Brian Hoyer and the Cleveland Browns.
Hoyer, a former backup of Brady's in New England, touched to the Bengals for 269 yards passing and two touchdowns. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, meanwhile, was held to 206 yards passing.
The Bengals managed just 63 yards rushing and went 4-for-14 on third downs.
"Well you get out of sync when you don't convert third down," noted Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "You have to convert third down to stay in sync. We had third downs that were both manageable and convertible."
Wide receiver A.J. Green had seven receptions, but posted just 51 yards receiving as he was blanketed by the Browns. That in part led to Dalton posting just a 58.2 passer rating after having logged a 105.5 rating the previous week in a win over Green Bay.
A victory would have put the Bengals in first place in the struggling AFC North, but instead Cincinnati joins Baltimore and Cleveland at 2-2. The Pittsburgh Steelers are last in the standings at 0-4.
The Bengals have lost four straight and seven of their last eight versus the Patriots and the clubs have split their 12 all-time meetings in Cincinnati. New England, though, has won both of its games at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Pats last traveled to Cincinnati on Oct. 1, 2007, notching a 34-13 win.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Brady ranks just 17th in the NFL with 1,014 passing yards, coming in behind such players as Ryan Tannehill, Geno Smith and Sam Bradford. His 87.4 passer rating also ranks just 22nd in the league, but the Patriots keep on winning.
While Brady has not been putting up eye-popping stats, he is doing enough to get wins. He has extended his string of consecutive games with a touchdown pass to 52 straight, two shy of Drew Brees' NFL record and needs on more touchdown against the Bengals to tie Fran Tarkenton for fourth place on the all-time list at 342.
And don't expect the Bengals to take Brady lightly. He is 4-0 against them with 937 passing yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions for a 114.0 passer rating.
"He's a very accurate thrower, he's got great anticipation, and he has a great understanding of what they're trying to do to, work leverage in coverage all the time," Lewis said of Brady. "He gets them in the looks, and he's obviously a great student of the game, because whether it's the running game or passing game, he gets them in the right looks."
Edelman has taken on the Wes Welker role with a team-high 34 receptions for 319 yards, matching Houston's Andre Johnson for the league lead in catches. He is just four receptions shy of setting a new single-season career high and is 40 yards short of matching his personal best of 359 yards receiving.
Thompkins has also contributed with a team-high three receiving touchdowns and the undrafted rookie will have a bit of a homecoming this Sunday after having attended the University of Cincinnati.
New England ranks sixth in scoring defense, giving up 14.3 points per game, and has a plus-4 turnover differential. The Pats have forced a turnover in 31 straight games and Talib has four interception in as many games.
A pick in this game would give Talib one in four straight games, matching a Patriots record set by Mike Haynes in 1976.
"Aqib has done a good job for us," said Belichick. "(He's a) smart player, good communicator, really competes hard, really competes well every day in practice and competes well on the field, whatever he's asked to do."
New England, though, will be operating without defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who had surgery on Tuesday to repair a torn right Achilles' tendon suffered versus Atlanta.
A five-time Pro Bowl selection, Wilfork will be tough to replace on New England's front line. Those tasked with trying will be a pair of rookies in Joe Vellano, undrafted out of Maryland, and Chris Jones, originally a sixth- round pick by Houston who the Pats claimed off waivers on Sept. 12.
"I think everybody is going to have to (help fill the void), we're all going to have to pull that rope," said Belichick. "There's no Vince Wilfork, you just don't replace Vince Wilfork. We'll still have his presence around the team and in the locker room and those types of things, which he's great at. On the field, we'll miss him but whoever is out there, those other 11 guys that are out there, we're all going to have to pull a little bit harder."
Without Wilfork, the Bengals may try to give Dalton and Green some help by sticking to the run game. That was a struggle versus the Browns as rookie Giovani Bernard had just 37 yards on 10 caries and former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis had just 13 yards on six carries.
Green-Ellis will get a chance to play the Patriots for the first time since joining the Bengals as a free agent ahead of the 2012 season. In his four previous campaigns with the Pats, he ran for over 2,000 yards. That included a 2010 campaign in which Green-Ellis ran for 1,008 yards and scored 13 touchdowns.
"We obviously have to be more effective running the football still, continue to commit to running the football, and stay with it, and make positive plays in the running game, and not get spooked away from it too often," said Lewis.
Despite having Green and Dalton, and adding rookies Bernard and tight end Tyler Eifert to Jermaine Gresham and Mohamed Sanu, the Bengals rank just 15th in passing (243.8 YPG) and 22nd in total offense (327.5 YPG).
Green, who Belichick this week called "Lynn Swann-ish," has had trouble breaking off the big plays, but still has 26 receptions, 300 yards and three touchdowns.
"There were times when (the Browns) covered him pretty well and others that I could have made some better throws that gave him more of a chance," Dalton said of Green. "If they put a couple of guys on A.J. then we have to make plays with the other guys."
The Bengals rank 10th in scoring defense at 20.3 points allowed per game and are hoping to get some depth back in the secondary. Cornerback Leon Hall and safety Reggie Nelson both missed the Browns game due to hamstring injuries, the same alignment that has kept corner Dre Kirkpatrick on the sidelines.
Cincinnati figures to plan on getting at least one of those players back this weekend after releasing cornerback Curtis Marsh on Tuesday and signing linebacker Michael Boley.
Brady appears to be getting comfortable with the new faces on offense just in time to face a Bengals secondary that has had its share of injuries. Though Cincinnati may get a player to two back from injury, facing Brady at less than 100 percent is like trying to keep up with a Cheetah in a golf cart.
The loss of Wilfork will hurt, but the Bengals don't exactly have a game- breaking back to exploit his absence either. New England will likely try to get Cincinnati's ground game beat them rather than Dalton and Green.
Green and Talib should be a fun matchup to watch, but expect Brady to once again put on a show.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 27, Bengals 20
10/03 14:47:02 ET