Entering Week 16 with only a 20 percent chance of making the playoffs, the New England Patriots are under immense pressure to earn a victory. If they want to control their own fate over these final three weeks of the regular season, they need to win out.
Doing so will not be easy. For starters, the Patriots have played some disappointing and highly inconsistent football recently — it’s what cost them last Sunday’s game in Las Vegas and several others en route to their 7-7 record. An additional problem from their perspective is the slate of opponents: the Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills are among the best teams in the NFL this season.
The first team up is Cincinnati, which will visit Gillette Stadium on Christmas Eve.
The Bengals are one of the hottest teams in the league right now. Owners of a six-game winning streak and the current No. 3 seed in the AFC, they have found their rhythm after a 4-4 start. It is therefore no surprise to see New England listed as 3-point underdogs for this one, according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
How will the Patriots overcome the odds to earn their eighth win of the season and stay alive in the wild card race? Here is our best-guess estimation.
Patriots offense vs. Bengals defense
The Patriots passing offense has struggled pushing the ball down the field in recent weeks, and instead relied primarily on the quick game and screen passes to set get going. Whether that is the result of game-planning or personnel — or, likely, a combination of both — it would not be a surprise to see a similar approach on Saturday.
New England, after all, will be going up against a Bengals defense that is pretty set in its ways. As head coach Bill Belichick pointed out earlier this week, Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is not one to make big change on a week-to-week basis.
“This isn’t a team that does a lot of new things from week to week,” Belichick said. “You don’t look at one game and say like, ‘Wow, that looks a lot different than some other game.’ They’re pretty steady really in their personnel groups and their calls. They have little variations from time to time or certain situations, but generally speaking they play to their system, it’s balanced.
“They mix it up, they bring some secondary pressure, not an inordinate amount, but enough to keep you on. They play mostly zone, mix some man in. When they play man, they get into packages that they man-to-man players on the field. So, Lou does a good job with mixing things up and they kind of have their system of doing things and they do it pretty well.”
The numbers are a reflection of that. Not counting scores given up on offense or special teams, Anarumo’s unit is ranked 10th in the NFL in points per game (19.6); it also checks in at No. 9 in expected points added (-0.022) and 10th in takeaways (19).
While the success speaks for itself, there is a method to attack the Bengals. And teams have recently exploited it; just take last week’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Before Tom Brady and company literally gave the game away — they had four turnovers to help turn a 17-0 lead into a 34-23 loss — they found success against Cincinnati by attacking the weaknesses in their coverage systems. Those weaknesses include attacking the short and intermediate zones:
On this play, Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) was able to get inside leverage against a man look and Brady (12) found him for a 15-yard gain.
Additionally, Tampa Bay was able to find success using play-action concepts. The Patriots have only incorporated those sparingly, but given Brady’s stat-line last week — 10-for-14 for 145 yards — it might be wise to have a few play-action shots in the game plan this week.
Additionally, New England could try to go to its bread-and-butter plays in the screen game. The Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans, for example, had considerable success when attempting screens against Cincinnati:
With the Bengals in a two-high man look, the Chiefs were able to clear out space underneath with deeper patterns from the wide receivers. This, in turn, allowed them to create a numbers advantage. They turned it into a 16-yard gain, in large part because of center Creed Humphrey (52) taking care of the defender — linebacker Logan Wilson (55) — responsible for covering running back Isiah Pacheco (10) out of the backfield.
Of course, the Patriots will also use their running game to get things going versus Cincinnati. The Bengals defense has been statistically average against the run, posting an EPA of -0.061 so far this season.
New England should be able to find its openings as well, in particular with the interior D-linemen not named D.J. Reader: the 28-year-old has been a space-eater up front, but the rest of the group has been more inconsistent. The Patriots’ trio in the middle — guards Cole Strange and Michael Onwenu as well as center David Andrews — should be able to generate movement along this front.
In general, the three will be in the spotlight against Cincinnati. The Bengals, after all, have a disruptive front in the passing game.
“They’re long, they get their hands on some balls, a couple tip passes for interceptions, things like that,” Belichick said. “They do a good job of throwing around those guys, especially the ends. But they’re big up front, Reader, [B.J.] Hill, and those guys. It’s not an easy group to throw with. Power rush and then the edge guys come squeeze the pocket. So, they do a good job.”
While Trent Brown should be able to handle star edge rusher Trey Hendrickson, especially with him playing through a broken wrist, the interior will be under some pressure. Cincinnati, after all, likes to muddy the waters in obvious passing situations: the team uses loaded fronts to create 1-on-1 matchups, and stunts — often with off-ball linebacker Logan Wilson mugging an interior gap — to challenge communication up front.
Patriots defense vs. Bengals offense
New England’s pass defense has been one of the best in the NFL this season, but it faces a problem this week: it is undersized when compared to Cincinnati’s cast of pass catchers. While 6-foot-4 starting tight end Hayden Hurst is out with a calf injury, the three wideouts used on almost every down are big men as well.
The biggest among them is the shortest: 6-foot-0 Ja’Marr Chase is one of the best wide receivers in the league and capable of beating every defensive back going up against him. The 2021 NFL Rookie of the Year is in the middle of another highly productive season, and his chemistry with quarterback Joe Burrow is a big reason why.
Not only are they in their second year in Cincinnati together, they also were college teammates at LSU. The bond they created over the past few years is apparent:
On this play against Kansas City in Week 13, the Chiefs play 2-invert disguised as Cover 0. Burrow (9) doesn’t flinch, though, and changes the play which allows Chase to sit in the soft area down the sideline for a big gain of 22 yards.
The Burrow-Chase connection will put up its numbers, but it is not the only one able to pose problems from New England’s point of view.
Burrow, the former first overall draft pick, has also actively distributed the ball to fellow wideouts Tee Higgins (6-foot-4) and Tyler Boyd (6-foot-2). With the Patriots’ tallest cornerbacks either inactive (6-foot-0 Jalen Mills) or merely emergency options (6-foot-1 Shaun Wade), they might have to get creative in order to find success against this group.
So, how can they do that? Realistically, it comes down to two areas: zone coverage and pressure up front.
The expectation is that New England will not play much press-man without safety help against Cincinnati’s massive group of wide receivers. The emphasis should be on jamming the inside guys to disrupt the timing of routes, but to simply not get beat deep on the outside. Once a throw is confirmed, coming down hard on the underneath patterns would also be key.
The goal for New England should be not to put their undersized group of defensive backs into unfavorable matchups; expecting somebody like 5-foot-10 Jonathan Jones to match up one-on-one with the likes of Chase, Higgins or Boyd — especially with no deep help providing bracket coverage — is just asking for disaster.
As noted above, though, pass defense involves more than just playing the right coverage in the backend. New England, after all, has a favorable matchup in the pass-rush department.
Led by Pro Bowler Matthew Judon and third-year breakout player Josh Uche, they can stress opposing offensive lines — especially one such as Cincinnati’s that has had its ups and downs this season. The completely rebuilt unit, which retained only one starter from a year ago, is still a work in progress from a chemistry perspective.
The Patriots, of course, know how to exploit any and all issues in this area (just ask the Indianapolis Colts, who could not stop a stunt to safe their lives). Accordingly, it would not be a surprise to see them copy some of the Buccaneers’ looks:
Burrow was sacked three times against the Buccaneers, including on this play in the second quarter.
Here, the Buccaneers are in a zone coverage shell behind a four-man line. Instead of rushing the down-linemen, however, they dropped edge Anthony Nelson (98) out and overloaded the right side of the line with a second-level blitz from Lavonte David (54). Cincinnati was not ready, which in turn allowed David to get to Burrow untouched and take him down for a fumble and loss of 10 total yards.
Whether it is sending simulated or replacement pressure such as on this play, or simply running stunts and similar games, the goal has to be clear: speed up Burrow’s process by bringing the heat against him. Given his cast of pass catchers plus the Bengals’ offensive line performance this year, this might very well be the key to the game from a New England point of view.