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Meet the Bengals: Patriots face one of the hottest teams in football in Week 16

New England will host the reigning AFC champions on Christmas eve.

Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ playoff chances are hanging by a thread. Following their collapse against Las Vegas on Sunday, they have only a 19 percent chance of making it into the tournament and will have to win out to control their own fate.

Doing that will not be easy, and the first opponent of their final three-game slate is already a big challenge. The reigning AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals, owners of a 10-4 record and the current No. 3 seed in the conference, will visit Gillette Stadium for a Christmas eve showdown.

The Bengals started the year slowly, and appeared to suffer from the so-called Super Bowl hangover. But after going just 4-4 over the first eight weeks of the season, they have hit their stride: the team of head coach Zac Taylor has won six straight games, the longest win streak in the AFC and second longest in the entire league (San Francisco, 7).

As a result, Cincinnati moved from fighting for a wild card spot to one of the top teams in the conference. The numbers reflect this recent surge as well:

  • Record: 10-4 (1st AFC North)
  • Offense: 26.4 points/game (5th), 362.1 yards/game (10th), 0.105 EPA/play (4th)
  • Defense: 20.6 points/game (10th), 335.7 yards/game (16th), -0.022 EPA/play (9th)
  • Scoring differential: +81 (6th)
  • Turnover differential: +5 (5th)

As can be seen, the Bengals are as well-rounded a team as any in football. Their offense led by Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow is among the most productive in the league, while the defense is not too far behind and a top-10 unit as well.

The Bengals are a definitive competitor yet again this year. The Patriots will need to play their best football in order to beat them — something they have only done sporadically over the first 15 weeks of the season.

With all that said, let’s now jump right to the Bengals’ active roster to get to know each of the players currently with the Patriots’ Week 16 opponent.

(Note: The 53-man roster is up-to-date as of Thursday 8 a.m. ET; *denotes projected starter)

Quarterbacks

  • Joe Burrow* (9)
  • Brandon Allen (8)

The first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Burrow has been outstanding since his rookie year was cut short by an ACL injury. The LSU product is in the middle of another impressive season: through 14 games this season, he has completed 349 of 512 pass attempts (68.2%) for 3,885 yards with 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Burrow also has scored five rushing touchdowns.

While he might not be on the same level of recognition as other quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen, make no mistake: Burrow is right up there with the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

Burrow will again play every important snap against the Patriots, meaning that his backup — veteran Brandon Allen — will remain on the bench. Allen has taken just 16 snaps this season.

Offensive backfield

  • Joe Mixon* (28)
  • Samaje Perine (34)
  • Trayveon Williams (32 | KR)
  • Chris Evans (25)

The Bengals’ offensive backfield is a two-man show this season. Joe Mixon is the leader of the group, both in terms of playing time opportunities and statistics: the team’s leader with 1,079 yards from scrimmage, Mixon has carried the football 183 times for 722 yards and six touchdowns; he also has caught 48 passes for an additional 357 yards and two scores.

Behind him, Smaje Perine has provided quality rotational depth. Equally solid in a dual-threat capacity, the sixth-year man has notched 119 touches for 637 yards and six touchdowns. His 5.4 yards per touch are actually superior when compared to Mixon’s 4.7.

Trayveon Williams and Chris Evans have made most of their impact in the kicking game, with Williams taking over from Evans as the featured kickoff returner recently.

Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Wide receivers

  • Ja’Marr Chase* (1)
  • Tee Higgins* (85)
  • Tyler Boyd* (83)
  • Trenton Irwin (16)
  • Trent Taylor (11 | PR)
  • Stanley Morgan Jr. (17 | ST)

The Bengals might have as good a starting three at the wide receiver position as any team in the NFL. While Tee Higgins (65-894-6) and Tyler Boyd (50-690-5) are impressive talents in their own right, and realistic candidates to serve as No. 1 options on several teams in the league, they are only second and third on the list of Burrow’s favorite targets.

That’s because his favorite wide receiver back at LSU is also on the team — and he is one of the best wideouts in the league: Ja’Marr Chase, who was just voted to his second Pro Bowl in as many seasons in the NFL, is Cincinnati’s WR1. While he did miss some time earlier this year due to a hip injury, he has still caught a team-high 71 passes on 110 targets for 881 yards and eight touchdowns.

Chase, Higgins and Boyd are hoarding targets at the wide receiver position: they are responsible for 274 of them this year, compared to 28 shared between backups Trenton Irwin, Trent Taylor and Stanley Morgan Jr.

Tight ends

  • Hayden Hurst* (88)
  • Mitchell Wilcox (84)
  • Devin Asiasi (86)

While Patriots fans will surely recognize Devin Asiasi’s name on the list of Bengals tight ends — he was a third-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2020 but did not find much success in New England — he is only playing third-string behind Hayden Hurst and Mitchell Wilcox. Both have been prominently featured this season, but Hurst is the top option in both snaps and stats.

Whereas Wilcox has caught 11 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown in his 416 snaps, Hurst leads the position group with 48 catches for 400 and two scores on 497. Asiasi, for comparison, has played 151 snaps without registering any statistics.

Offensive tackles

  • Jonah Williams* (73 | LT)
  • La’el Collins* (71 | RT)
  • Hakeem Adeniji (77)
  • D’Ante Smith (70)

The Bengals’ offensive line was a liability last year, and the team went out this offseason to fix it. Among the investments was a new right tackle to start opposite former first-round draft pick Jonah Williams: La’el Collins, who the Patriots were rumored also to be interested in, joined the team on a three-year, $21 million contract after his release from Dallas.

Cincinnati’s offensive tackle play has improved with him in the fold, but Collins and Williams have still given up a combined 14 sacks and 67 total quarterback pressures so far this season.

Interior offensive line

  • Cordell Volson* (67 | LG)
  • Ted Karras* (64 | C)
  • Alex Cappa* (65 | RG)
  • Max Scharping (74)
  • Trey Hill (63)
  • Jackson Carman (79)

While Cincinnati kept one starter in place at offensive tackle, the interior was completely rebuilt. Ex-Patriot Ted Karras and Alex Cappa were added in free agency, while Cordell Volson was picked up in the fourth round of the draft.

The trio has been impressively durable this season, missing just 14 of a possible 2,860 snaps between them, but there were some growing pains earlier in the year. Volson in particular continues to be somewhat hit and miss while adapting to life in the NFL.

Interior defensive line

  • B.J. Hill* (92)
  • Josh Tupou* (68)
  • Zachary Carter (95)
  • D.J. Reader (98)
  • Jay Tufele (97)

Led by fifth-year man B.J. Hill, who signed a three-year, $30 million contract extension with the Bengals this offseason, the team has some solid depth along its interior defensive line. Hill will play a majority of snaps and be joined by a changing cast of characters around him.

Veteran Josh Tupou is the top option alongside him, With Zachary Carter, D.J. Reader and Jay Tufele also rotating in on a semi-regular basis. Tufele’s status for Saturday is in question, though, after he missed Wednesday’s practice due to an illness.

NFL: DEC 11 Browns at Bengals Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defensive edge

  • Sam Hubbard* (94)
  • Trey Hendrickson* (91)
  • Cameron Sample (96)
  • Joseph Ossai (58)
  • Jeffrey Gunter (93)

The Bengals’ edge group is led by the two-headed monster that is Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson. Hubbard leads the team with 6.5 sacks, while recent Pro Bowl selection Hendrickson, who has notched 6.0 of his own, is first with a pair of forced fumbles.

The group does face some questions heading into Week 16, though. Not only is Hubbard expected to miss the game after sustaining a calf injury last week, Hendrickson is also limited in practice because of a wrist ailment; he sat out last week’s game in Tampa Bay as a result of the issue.

As a result, the backup options on the roster — especially Cameron Sample and Joseph Ossai — will likely see increased opportunities. While both are solid rotational players, who have combined to notch three sacks and one fumble recovery this year, a drop-off is to be expected.

Off-the-ball linebackers

  • Logan Wilson* (55)
  • Germaine Pratt* (57)
  • Akeem Davis-Gaither (59 | ST)
  • Markus Bailey (51 | ST)
  • Joe Batchie (49 | ST)
  • Clay Johnston (44 | ST)

A former third-round draft pick by the Bengals in 2020, Logan Wilson has developed into the team’s No. 1 off-ball linebacker. As such, he rarely leaves the field: playing 91 percent of snaps, he has registered a team-high 106 tackles to go along with 1.5 sacks and an interception.

Fello starter Germaine Pratt, meanwhile, has been an impact player as well. Pratt is second with 92 tackles, has notched a sack and two interceptions himself, and has both forced and recovered a fumble.

The other linebackers on the roster are all actively involved on special teams: Clay Johnston leads the team with 271 snaps in the game’s third phase, while Markus Bailey has registered a team-high eight solo tackles.

Cornerbacks

  • Eli Apple* (20)
  • Mike Hilton* (21)
  • Cam Taylor-Britt* (29)
  • Tre Flowers (33)
  • Jalen Davis (35)

The Bengals’ cornerback group might lack star power and lost starter Chidobe Awuzie to a torn ACL in October, but more often than not it has been able to get the job done. While nominal CB1 Eli Apple has been inconsistent, ex-Patriot Mike Hilton and rookie Cam Taylor-Britt have played some solid football — even though the three have not yet registered any interceptions this year.

In fact, the only INT caught by a Bengals cornerback this season came courtesy of veteran backup Tre Flowers. A majority of picks, meanwhile, was made by what is one of the best safety groups in the league.

Safeties

  • Vonn Bell* (24)
  • Jessie Bates III* (30)
  • Daxton Hill (23)
  • Michael Thomas (31 | ST)

Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates are as good a one-two punch at the safety position as you will find in the NFL. The two are not just ultra-durable in the backend of Cincinnati’s defense, but also serious playmakers: Bell ranks first on the team with four interceptions; Bates ranks second with three.

The two will rarely if ever leave the field against New England. And they also might get company from the Bengals’ No. 3 safety: Daxton Hill, the 31st overall pick in this year’s draft. Hill has played a smaller role than Bell and Bates, but he was on the field for a career-high 66 defensive snaps last week.

Specialists

  • Evan McPherson (2 | K | KO)
  • Drue Chrisman (4 | P | H)
  • Cal Adomitis (48 | LS)

Cincinnati started the season with long-time punter Kevin Huber manning the position, but he has since moved to the practice squad and been replaced by second-year man Drue Chrisman. The move paid off, with the gross yards and net yards per punt both increasing with Chrisman in the lineup.

The other two specialists spots are manned by second-year man Evan McPherson, who has made a combined 57 of 64 field goal and extra point attempts (89%), as well as rookie long snapper Cal Adomitis.

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