FOXBORO, Mass. — There are few better matchups during the NFL's opening weekend than the one right here in New England, where a pair of 2009 division champions will square off in a game that could have serious tiebreaking implications four months from now.
Neither side can expect an easy victory, but here are three keys for the Patriots when they host the Bengals on Sunday.
Attack the Middle
Cincinnati has a really stout defense, but it can be beat over the middle. The Patriots are fortunate enough to have the tools to execute such a feat.
The Bengals linebackers are better against the run than the pass, and their safeties have a real reputation for a lack of coverage skills. It's going to be up to the Patriots to utilize tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and slot receivers Wes Welker and Julian Edelman to create mismatches with the outside linebackers and then extend those routes into the third level of the defense.
If the Patriots can do that, they'll have an opportunity to free up Randy Moss against single coverages. Regardless of how good the Bengals' cornerbacks are, Moss still kills single coverages.
Reality TV is at its greatest when the storylines are at their ugliest, and that’s what VH1 stars Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens will hope to accomplish Sunday. Patriots cornerbacks Darius Butler and Devin McCourty have to keep their composure against the veteran receivers, who will be salivating over the shot to take advantage of the youngsters.
Butler and McCourty are a pair of talented players, but they'll certainly face their share of growing pains this season. They've got to limit their mistakes and stay consistent against Ochocinco and Owens, each of whom have the ability to turn a defensive misstep into a long touchdown.
Stop the Run
The Bengals morphed into a running team in 2009, when Cedric Benson tallied 1,251 yards in just 13 games. Since Cincinnati likes running the ball more to the outside, it will be a big test for New England defensive ends Gerard Warren and Mike Wright, among others, who have to carry their load around Vince Wilfork. It will also be an important test for inside linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, who have both displayed a great ability in run defense.
If the Bengals are able to run and use play-action, it will obviously make life more difficult for Butler and McCourty. That will also give the Bengals a chance to get tight end Jermaine Gresham some more catches, and the Patriots had a difficult time covering tight ends — and the middle of the field in general — earlier this preseason.
By taking away Cincinnati's run game, and thus its patience, New England's defense will be at a much greater advantage.