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Catching up with … the Bengals

07.20.13 at 4:45 pm ET
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As we count down to the start of training camp, we’€™ll take a look at all 13 opponents on the Patriots’€™ regular-season schedule and break down each one of them. We’€™ve already featured the Bills, Jets, Buccaneers and Falcons. Now, it’s the Bengals.

Specifics: The Patriots will open the second quarter of the regular season when they travel to Cincinnati on Oct. 6 for a 1 p.m. date with the Bengals.

Say goodbye to … outside linebacker Manny Lawson, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, outside linebacker Dan Skuta, cornerback Nate Clements, fullback/running back Brian Leonard.

Welcome … tight end Tyle Eifert, defensive end Margus Hunt, linebacker James Harrison, quarterback John Skelton.

Recent history: For the most part, the Patriots have held the upper hand in their meetings with the Bengals in recent years — New England has won the last four games, and holds a 14-8 edge in the overall series. The last time the two teams met was in the 2010 regular-season opener for both teams, and in that one, the Patriots came away with a 38-24 win. While there were several takeaways from that game for New Emgland — it marked the professional debut of Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and the return of Wes Welker from a crippling knee injury — it was also the contest where Randy Moss delivered a memorable postgame soliloquy on his situation with the Patriots. Less than three months later, he’s be gone, dealt to the Vikings.

The Patriots should be worried because … this is a pretty hearty bunch who somehow managed to claw their way into a postseason spot for the second year in a row — which is no small feat in the blood-and-guts division that is the AFC North. Quarterback Andy Dalton grew into a passable signal-caller last year, despite the fact he has limited arm strength, while Pro Bowler A.J. Green will be one of the better young receivers the Patriots will face this season. (Cincy also got Eifert in the draft, another option for Dalton who will likely be counted on to contribute as a rookie.) Meanwhile, the Bengals were in the top half of the league in most major defensive categories, and while some of the tread has likely fallen off Harrison’s tires, the former Defensive Player of the Year could still provide a boost to the Cincy pass rush, which is still powered by Geno Atkins (12.5 sacks last year, most in the league for a DT).

The Patriots shouldn’€™t be worried because … while Dalton has matured into a good young quarterback, he can still be rattled, and occasionally displays some questionable decision making. (His 16 picks last year were tied for eighth in the league.) Overall, the Bengals have some consistency issues on both sides of the ball — whether that’s growing pains for a young team or symbolic of some deeper issue is still to be determined. Chances are good that a veteran team (specifically, one with a veteran quarterback like Tom Brady) will be able to take advantage of inopportune mistakes committed by the Bengals.

The skinny: Mock the Bengals at your own risk, as there’s certainly a lot to like about Cincy, a team that appears to be trending in a positive direction on both sides of the ball. And while they might not have the juice that the Bucs or Falcons have, for New England, it’ll be a road test against a team that’s made the playoffs two straight years, a possible taking-care-of-business sort of contest that should provide a glimpse as to how mentally tough the Patriots are a month into the season. (This marks one of the few games New England won’t play this year on the East Coast.) Meanwhile, the Bengals get the chance to measure themselves against a perennial playoff contender like the Patriots.

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