CINCINNATI (WKRC) - Here are five things to watch, consider and take note about for Sunday's Bengals game at the New England Patriots, which will kick off at 1 p.m. in Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. and can be seen on Local12, and my prediction at the bottom:
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5. Bengals special teams need to finally make a big play
The Skinny: The Bengals special teams certainly haven't been awful the first five games of the season, but they haven't exactly been all that special either.
The Bengals are averaging just 20.0 yards on nine kickoff returns with the longest being 24 yards and punt returners Alex Erickson and Adam Jones are averaging just 6.1 yards on 11 punt returns with a long of 15 yards.
They also haven't been great at covering kickoffs either, allowing a 25.8-yard average on 12 returns, including a 65-yard return.
New England has been outstanding in kick coverage allowing just a 15.8-yard average on 12 kickoff returns and a 7.3 average on seven punt returns and a net average of 42.5 yards per punt.
This is one of those games where the Bengals desperately need to win the special teams phase, because the other two phases will be tough to win.
"Creating field position and the things it takes to win on the road are really important this week,” said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.
4. Patriots running game not quite as good as yards per game indicates
The Skinny: New England ranks fourth in the NFL in yards per game rushing (128.0), but are just 20th in yards per carry (3.9). That average per carry is even worse if quarterback Jacoby Brissett's 83 yards on 16 carries is taken out of the equation. Without Brissett's numbers factored into the equation it's 3.7 per carry.
The Bengals were gouged on the ground the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday a season-high 180 yards on only 29 carries (6.2 per carry).
"It wasn't one of our better days, obviously," said defensive coordinator Paul Guenter. "We didn't play blocks most of the day. It was one guy here, one guy there jumping out of the gaps when they started running the ball effectively on us. It's unlike us and we've go to get it cleaned up. When we play good, everybody does their job. Obviously we've been pretty good against the run around here for a long time. We understood what the plan was, and they just beat us."
What made the Dallas game even more frustrating is that Bengals were coming off back-to-back game of allowing 52 and 62 yards rushing and the fact Guenther said he thought the defense had a good week in terms of preparing for the Cowboys.
"I actually thought we had one of our better weeks of practice," said Guenther. "Then we play Miami on two walkthroughs (and held the Dolphins to 62 yards rushing) - go figure. I thought we were prepared. I thought the plan was good. I thought the players understood the plan. Then we just didn’t play good. Point blank. Some days you play good. Other times — in all sports on any level — some days a team is just going to beat you. That happened (against Dallas). I always take it back to we don’t have play above your responsibility or above your level, I always relate it back to basketball. Sometimes a guy is going to come into the gym and make every shot. He’s going to score 50 points and you played pretty damn good. You are going to run into that sometimes. If we play at a consistent level and within the defense all the time we are going to win more than we lose. That’s how I’ve always approached it."
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is going to be tough enough to stop, but the Bengals can make it easier by stopping the run and at least forcing Brady into second-and-long and third-and-long situations.
3. Covering Gronkowski and Bennett will be a chore
The Skinny: The Patriots have the best tight end in the game in Rob Gronkowski, who missed the first two games of the season, and all Martellus Bennett has done is caught 21 passes (second-most on the team) for a team-high 314 yards and four touchdowns.
"They create different matchups for linebackers," said cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. "At the end of the day, we know they're going to be a problem. We just have to roll with the gameplan and see what we can do as far as distracting them."
The Bengals struggled with Gronkowski and Tim Wright the last time the team's played in 2014 in New England. The Patriots won 43-17 with Gronkowski catching six passes for 100 yards and a touchdown and Wright catching six for 85 yards and a touchdown. Linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, who left the Bengals in the offseason as a fre agent, especially struggled in coverage.
"You have to kind of decide what you want to do from a matchup standpoint," said Guenther. "Last time we had some different guys in there in that game and we didn't handle it very good. It causes some matchup problems for sure."
The Bengals have done a good job on tight ends for the most part this season, allowing opposing tight ends to catch 14 passes for 150 yards and three touchdowns in the first five games combined.
2. What if the 'little things' Bengals say they need to fix can't get fixed?
The Skinny: A plethora of players and coaches say most of the team's issues so far this season involve "little things," that need to be corrected and that might well be true, but what if it isn't just the "little things," and it's more a personnel problem especially on the offensive line.
The offensive line has struggled in numerous places, especially center Russell Bodine, right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi. Part of Zeitler's issues may stem from him trying to cover for both Bodine and Ogbuehi.
Veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth said the offensive line bears some of the brunt of the criticism directed at it, but when the team fell behind Dallas 28-0 and became one-dimensional throwing the ball on almost every down in an attempt to rally it makes if difficult.
"When you get down in games and you're losing and you're going to throw it a hundred times, all of a sudden the problem is going to be the offensive line, but the reality is if you're losing by three or four scores, we're not playing well everywhere," said Whitworth. "We've got to put up points and do a better job in the first quarter really of getting ourselves in a position to be able to maintain the gameplan throughout the game and play our style of football."
Quarterback Andy Dalton has been sacked 17 times and the Bengals haven't run it very well either, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry.
"I think there are a lot of issues that go into losing," said Whitworth. "The truth is as a team we have to perform better. The reality is it's not just us, but we're a big component of it. We've got to play better. We've got to play well enough for us to win, and as a team we've got to find ways to win games."
The defensive line hasn't been as dominant as it was projected to be either as opponents are averaging 4.4 yards per carry and the Bengals have only 10 sacks, which has allowed opposing quarterbacks - two of whom were rookies - a passer rating of 96.5.
"There’s always little things to fix," said Lewis. "I came in here all last season with the same little things to fix, and we’d come out on top in the score. That’s part of professional football. Eleven guys have to stick together all the time and do it right. We’re not going to be happy with it when it’s not all the way right. You get pleased with some things and have to correct other things. That’s where we are.”
1. Bengals must handle the emotion of Brady's first home since four-game suspension
The Skinny: Brady's first game back from his four-game NFL suspension was last week in Cleveland so this will be his first home game and it will be an emotionally-charged atmosphere because of it.
The Bengals have to find a way to handle that atmosphere.
Since 2007 Brady has compiled a 48-1 record at home against AFC opponents.
"The communication is a little more clear than obviously on the road, and that helps especially our offense, because we communicate quite a bit," said Brady. "I'm always pretty excited to play. I love practicing, so when I finally get a chance to play in a game I'm always pretty fired up."
PREDICTION: Patriots 27, Bengals 20.
The Skinny: The Bengals should bounce back from last week's dreadful performance in Dallas, but even that might not be good enough to beat New England.
"I really haven't been in this situation before. This is my first time since I've been with the Bengals," said Kirkpatrick. "It's a little challenging. Are we going to answer the bell? Are we going to rise up for the challenge? I feel like we've got a great chance. We've got a great group of guys in here that are willing to put the extra work in. We should be able to take this game more serious than the approach that we have been because obviously that's not been working."
Maybe it is a just a "little things" issue, but if it's a "big things" issue then the Patriots will expose it.
PREDICTION RECORD: 3-2.