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Patriots’ Potential Playoff Opponents: Bengals

01.02.14 at 12:58 pm ET

With the Patriots securely in the playoffs, it’€™s time to start sizing up their possible postseason opponents. This is a series on the rest of the AFC playoff teams. We’€™ve already taken a look at the Chargers, Colts and Chiefs. Now, it’€™s the Bengals.

The skinny: The Bengals reached the postseason by taking the AFC North for the second consecutive season, as they finished with an 11-5 mark, winning five of their last six to head into the playoffs on an up note. There’€™s a lot to like about Cincinnati — they have a young and aggressive defense led by the likes of Wallace Gilberry, Michael Johnson, Vontaze Burfict and Carlos Dunlap. There’€™s also an impressive array of skill position players, including A.J. Green, Gio Bernard, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham and Marvin Jones. The biggest question is at quarterback, and whether or not Andy Dalton is ready to make the leap to the next level and show himself capable of leading a team deep into January. He’€™s certainly shown impressive flashes over the course of the regular season — whether he can put it all together in the postseason is another story. Cincinnati will face the Chargers Saturday, as the franchise hopes to find its first playoff win since 1990.

Offense: The 6-foot-4, 207-pound Green is one of the best young receivers in the league — he finished the season with 98 catches for 1,426 yards and 11 touchdowns, and is the Bengals best pass catcher. He also gets help in the passing game from Jones (51 catches, 712 yards, 10 TDs) and Gresham (46 catches, 461 yards, four TDs). The real multidimensional threat here is Bernard, who is a rare 50 catch-50 carry guy that can beat you through the air (56 receptions, 514 receiving yards) or on the ground (170 carries, 695 rushing yards). He has eight total touchdowns on the year, and has proven himself to be a tremendous offensive option. The Bengals also lean on old pal Green-Ellis in the running game (220 carries, 756 yards, seven TDs). But as we said before, it all comes back to Dalton, who has shown himself to be very good at times, and not so good at others. He had five games this season where he completed at least 70 percent of his passes, and also had five games where he threw for at least 325 yards — he also had three other games where he threw at least three picks. (For the season, he’€™s 363-for-586 for 62 percent, to go along with 4,296 yards, 33 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.) As a team, the Cincinnati offense is certainly above average statistically — the Bengals are 10th in the NFL in total offense (368.4 yards per game), eighth in passing yards per game (258.7), 18th in rushing yards per game (109.7) and tied for sixth in points per game (26.9). One thing that sticks out is that they’€™re not great when it comes to holding onto the ball — the Bengals have turned the ball over 31 times this year, more than any other team in the postseason.

Defense: The Bengals defense hasn’€™t been the same since All-World defensive lineman Geno Atkins went down for the season with a torn ACL, but the group has still been very impressive. They do a good job getting after the passer — the Bengals are 10th in the league in sacks — and have only allowed six opponents to rush for more than 100 yards. Gilberry and Dunlap bring pressure from off the edge (they both have 7.5 sacks each), while Burfict is one of the league leaders in tackles up the middle and Johnson has evolved into one of the better run stoppers in the league. Dre Kirkpatrick and Pacman Jones have three picks each to lead the secondary. The Bengals defense is one of the best in the league, at least from a numbers perspective. Cincinnati is third in the league in total defense (305.5 yards per game allowed) and fifth in the league in points per game allowed (19.1), run defense (96.5 yards per game) and pass defense (209.0 yards per game).

Why the Patriots should be afraid: Cincinnati does a lot of things the right way. The Bengals play good, sound defense — they’€™re stout across the board — and have a ton of impressive skill position players that would give anyone fits. While it’€™s important to note that these two teams were wildly different back in October, Cincinnati certainly showed the Patriots they had enough to hang with them for 60 minutes in that game. While a game in Foxboro might be different than one in Cincinnati, there’€™s no reason to think that a Bengals-Patriots playoff game (which would happen if they beat the Chargers Sunday) wouldn’€™t be a tight one.

Why the Patriots shouldn’€™t be afraid: It’€™s the Bengals, and while they have managed to shatter many of the popular narratives that have surrounded the franchise over the last decade-plus, the simple fact remains that head coach Marvin Lewis has gone a remarkable 11 seasons without winning a playoff game. As we discussed previously, there’€™s also the question as to whether or not Dalton is capable of making the leap and carrying a team to postseason glory.

One guy to look out for: Burfict is an intriguing player. An undrafted free agent in 2012 who wasn’€™t selected because of character concerns, the 6-foot-1, 255-pounder out of Arizona State, he’€™s considered an excellent coverage linebacker, and is a sizable part of any Cincinnati game plan. He looked particularly impressive in the Bengals October win over the Patriots in Cincinnati — on one play, he made a terrific burst up the middle and came away with a sack of Tom Brady.

Potential playoff villain: Jones has very quietly put together an impressive season for the Bengals. Playing in all 16 games for the first time in his career, the defensive back had 55 tackles and three picks (including one off Brady at the end of the October game against the Patriots) for his best season statistically since he was with the Titans in 2006.

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