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Patriots Potential Playoff Opponents: Cincinnati Bengals

12.29.11 at 3:03 pm ET

With the Patriots attempting to secure a No. 1 seed in the upcoming playoffs for a second straight season with a win against the Bills Sunday, it’€™s time to start sizing up their possible postseason opponents. This is the fourth in a weeklong series of features on the rest of the AFC playoff teams. Today, we look at the Cincinnati Bengals:

The skinny: No one expected the Bengals to do what they’ve done this year, namely post their third winning season in the last 21. But the Bengals did something before, during and after the lockout they rarely do — they cleaned house with personnel, keeping a young core on defense and building around rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and rookie receiver A.J. Green. They fired Bob Bratkowski — the wildly unpopular offensive coordinator. They let Terrell Owens go off and focus on reality TV and Twitter, and of course, traded Chad Ochocinco to New England, remaking the image of the franchise. They had the incredibly good fortune of a bitter and disenfranchised Carson Palmer holding out, forcing them to go with Dalton at quarterback to start preseason. They had even better fortune when Oakland’s Jason Campbell broke his collarbone 48 hours before the trading deadline, creating a market for Palmer. Owner Mike Brown and his daughter Katie Blackburn finally made the smart football move and traded Palmer for a first and second-round pick. Even if the team needed a 2-for-1 ticket promotion to sell out their final game this Sunday with the season on the line again the Ravens, the worm finally appears to be turning for a Bengals team that is built around young talent. This is a young team that has already exceeded expectations and is playing with house money, even if they house is half full.

Offense: Much has been made of the success — and rightfully so — of Dalton leading the Bengals to a winning record in his first NFL season, and doing it with a group of talented but still young skill players around him. Dalton injured his throwing hand in the opener and it was Bruce Gradkowski throwing the game-winner to Green against the Browns. But Dalton served notice against the Bills he was no ordinary rookie, helping the Bengals erase a 17-3 halftime deficit and leading them to a 23-20 win on a last-second field goal. But just as important to Cincinnati’s success has been the hiring of Jay Gruden as the offensive coordinator, replacing Bratkowski. Gruden — the younger brother of Jon Gruden — came from the UFL’s Florida Tuskers, where he was the head coach. Jay Gruden brought in a West Coast philosophy that has been the perfect fit for Dalton, targeting tight end Jermaine Gresham much more than Palmer did. The throws underneath to Gresham, along with the power running game of Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott, has opened the outside for superstar-in-the-making A.J. Green. The rookie first-round pick (fourth overall) out of Georgia has proven to be a one-man wrecking crew, often beating double teams and coming down with acrobatic catches. Dalton is the first rookie since the merger to throw for 20 touchdowns and win at least eight games. With 63 catches, 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns, Green is having best rookie season for a wide receiver since Randy Moss in 1998. Of course, Green doesn’t even have the most acrobatic catch on the team this season. That distinction belongs to Jerome Simpson, who somersaulted an stunned Darryl Washington and nailed the landing in the end zone for a perfect touchdown. The Bengals weakness offensively comes in the red zone, where they convert TDs just 47 percent of the time, which puts them at 24th in the NFL.

Defense: While the Patriots earned the reputation as a no-name defense early on this season, the Bengals have done likewise but have had even better results. They spent the middle part of the season ranked No. 1 in the NFL in overall defense, led by defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. They have slipped to sixth but still possess a formidable front seven and their base 4-3 defense, while not nearly as well known as the Giants, is as capable as any in the NFL of generating pressure on the quarterback by themselves. It starts with Domata Peko and Geno Atkins in the middle. They feature Frostee Rucker and Robert Geathers on the edge. They back that up with Michael Johnson, Jonathan Fanene and Carlos Dunlap. That is quality depth on the D-Line. Zimmer loves to mix it up in terms of bring extra pressure and will often send the safety or corner in from deep coverage to add to pressure up the middle. This is where things could get dicey for the Patriots, if the Bengals have sort of success getting Brady off his spot in the pocket. The Bengals have done a remarkable job of replacing the losses of corners Jonathan Joseph (free agency to Texans) and Leon Hall (Achilles tendon Nov. 13). Stepping up has been none other than Adam “Pacman” Jones. In addition to helping former Patriot Brandon Tate on kick and punt returns, Jones has shown why he was taken in the first round by the Titans in 2005.

Why the Patriots should be afraid: Green, Simpson and Gresham. Picture, if you will, the Patriots secondary up against Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker. The big difference is Dalton is no Tom Brady. That said, the Bengals’ trio is as good as the Patriots defense will face all season. But with Green, Simpson and Gresham, they finally have the receiving options to take some of the burden off the run game. The second reason, which may be more significant, is the front four on defense. It’s for this reason, Brady and Co. would need to get rid of the ball very quickly. A hurry-up offense would seem logical against the Bengals. One final thing, this team isn’t afraid of the big, bad bullies in the AFC. Playing the Steelers and Ravens twice in a season can go a long way in building character, especially on the road at Gillette Stadium, which is where these two would meet.

Why the Patriots shouldn’€™t be afraid: Coach Marvin Lewis. The Bengals have come unraveled in big games under him in the playoffs before. They entered in 2005 and 2009 as AFC North champs, only to meltdown in home playoff games, though there’s a huge asterisk that reads Kimo Von Oelhoffen running into Palmer’s knee on the second play of the ’05 playoff game. But even this season, they allowed T.J. Yates to march the Texans the length of the field at Paul Brown Stadium with no timeouts and beat them, 20-19, on the last play of the game. They nearly blew a 23-0 fourth-quarter lead at home to the Cardinals, getting saved when Early Doucette fell down in the end zone with no one around him. This team traditionally has a soft jaw and the Patriots have a history of landing punches early with Tom Brady and will look to take advantage of that early on to demoralize them.

One guy to look out for: Bernard Scott. The product of Abilene Christian is the change-of-pace back that’s made a big difference in the Bengals run game. The speedy Scott came in for Benson last week after Benson fumbled on two consecutive drives to let the Cardinals back in the game. He can run hard through the tackles and has a lot of speed to the edge.

Potential playoff villain: Adam Jones. Brady is clearly going to throw the ball, no matter what. If Brady throws to his side, he can be beat. But as pointed out above, the once-troubled talent out of West Virginia has steadied himself in Cincinnati and was the slot corner until a Hall’s injury pressed him into starting duty at the right corner. He’s fully capable of picking off a pass and taking it to the house with his return-man speed.

Read More: A.J. Green, Adam Pacman Jones, AFC North, Andy Dalton



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