All the totals put up by Tom Brady, Randy Moss and the Patriots offense have been impressive, a trend many expect to continue Monday night against a Bengals team looking to avenge a loss which sent it into a tailspin.
It certainly seems the Patriots (3-0) are headed for the postseason. They’ve scored 38 points in each victory - no team in the AFC has scored more - and won by 24 points in the season’s first two games before beating Buffalo 38-7 last Sunday.
“It just happened to hit that way early in the season, then everybody throws a lot more weight on it than what’s really deserved,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
The score was similar last year when these teams met, also in Week 4. Though many point to Carson Palmer’s torn knee ligaments in the 2005 playoffs or some players’ legal problems the following offseason as reasons the Bengals headed downhill, they did start 3-0 last year before being routed 38-13 at home by the Patriots.
Starting with that loss, the Bengals are in a 6-10 slump. That stretch resulted in the team missing the playoffs last year and falling into a last-place tie in the AFC North early this season.
“It has been a year, and that’s what it’s all about,” Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. “It’s time to step up and play NFL football.”
Brady has been playing at the highest level. He is the NFL’s highest-rated passer by a wide margin at 141.8, completing nearly 80 percent of his throws for 887 yards with a league-high 10 touchdowns and one interception.
Having Moss in the mix has clearly helped as he’s been possibly the best offseason acquisition made by any team, ranking among the league leaders with 403 receiving yards and five touchdown catches. He’s the first player in NFL history to record 100 yards receiving in his first three games with a new team.
“He’s a mismatch every time he’s out there,” Brady said. “My job’s easy. I’ve just got to throw it up there.”
Even the running game has done its part. Second-year back Laurence Maroney, who ran for 125 yards and two touchdowns against Cincinnati last year, has rushed for 252 yards and 4.7 per carry. Veteran Sammy Morris has chipped in 151 yards and two touchdowns.
“We know what to expect out of each other,” said Morris, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. “I can tell when he might need a rest during his series. I think as a unit we’re meshing well. We want to continue to stay positive and get better.”
It’s hard to imagine New England’s offense not being at least as good as it’s been facing a Cincinnati defense giving up 402.7 yards and 31.7 points per game, both fourth-worst in the NFL.
The Bengals offense, though, could challenge a New England defense which has given up just 35 points through three games.
“It’s an important week for us,” Lewis said. “A big week.”
Palmer ranks second in the league with 937 passing yards and nine touchdown passes, seven of which have gone to either Chad Johnson or T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The only player in the NFL with more receiving yards than Moss is Johnson (442), and Houshmandzadeh has the league lead with 46 receptions.
The running game, though, hasn’t really gotten on track, and now it is expected to be without top rusher Rudi Johnson due to a strained hamstring. His likely absence might not be such a bad thing, having been held to 177 yards on 58 carries without a touchdown run after having 12 each of the last three seasons.
Kenny Watson probably will make his first start since 2002 after gaining 60 yards on nine carries with a touchdown in last Sunday’s 24-21 loss at Seattle.
“He’s a little bit different style of runner than Rudi,” Lewis said. “Certain runs we do offensively have been set up a little differently than where Rudi’s strengths are.”
The Bengals hope whoever runs the ball can get some opportunities in the red zone, considering that’s one area on defense in which New England has struggled. Opponents have scored touchdowns all five times they have moved inside the Patriots’ 20-yard line.
As good a start as New England has enjoyed, the always critical Belichick was quick to point out that weakness.
“We haven’t stopped anybody yet, so it starts with me,” he said. “We can’t let them in the end zone every time they cross the 20-yard line. It’s just ridiculous.”