Patriots at Bengals: 5 storylines to watch in Sunday’s game

The defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots play the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, but much of the attention this week has been focused on the potential “Spygate 2.0” scandal.

A videographer employed by the Patriots was caught illegally filming the Bengals’ sideline during last weekend’s game at Cleveland, and the NFL had not yet released the findings of its investigation as of Friday afternoon.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor declined to comment on how he felt about the situation and said it would not be a distraction for his team. Cincinnati (1-12) has enough to worry about as it tries for its second win against the likes of New England (10-3).

Here are five storylines to watch:

1. Preparation impact

Taylor said he would be preparing his team like any other week but would not say whether the Bengals had to change coaching signals because of the videotaping incident. The film was confiscated, but Cincinnati can’t be sure information wasn’t retained or passed along that could prove advantageous to New England.

Any changes the Bengals might have made would have just created extra work this week when Cincinnati already had enough on its plate preparing to go up against the top defense in the league and a 20-year veteran quarterback who knows how to win games.

Bengals players insist they haven’t been talking about the scandal, and the incident doesn’t change how they feel about the opponent.

“It’s a football game,” running back Joe Mixon said. “I don’t see what’s different about (it).”

2. Tough defense

Normally, the Patriots’ offense is what draws the most attention, but this season, the defense is the strongest part of the team.

New England was strong in that phase of the game last year when the Patriots beat the Rams 13-3 in the Super Bowl but they appear even better now. They are No. 1 in scoring defense (12.9 points), total defense (264.8 yards allowed) and turnover differential (plus-19), and no team has scored more than 22 points against them this season.

The defense has a league-high 21 interceptions, has recovered 10 fumbles (sixth most) and accounts for 41 sacks (sixth most). Free safety Devin McCourty has five interceptions and 12 passes defensed, cornerback Stephon Gilmore has four interceptions and 18 passes defensed, outside linebacker Jamie Collins adds three interceptions and three fumbles and cornerback J.C. Jackson accounts for three interceptions. McCourty is questionable with a groin injury.

“They are just sound in everything they do,” Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said. “Guys are always in the right spot, guys play with great leverage. They are very opportunistic. You see any tipped ball that’s in the air, they are coming down with interceptions. They are great at forcing fumbles. They are just sound across the board.”

Dalton has thrown nine interceptions in 10 games this season with one in two games since returning from a three-week stint on the bench.

3. The Brady factor

Although 42 years old, Tom Brady still has what it takes to win games. He’s 217-63 since he became a starter in 2001, his second year in the league, and he’s appeared in 40 playoff games, has led the Patriots to 35 comeback wins and 44 game-winning drives.

Brady was listed on the injury report all week with a right elbow issue but was full-go in practices. Meanwhile, two of his best weapons were limited as former Bengals receiver Mohamed Sanu was dealing with an ankle problem and Julian Edelman with knee and shoulder ailments. Both are questionable for Sunday. Brady averages 264.4 passing yards per game and has 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

The Bengals’ defense has been strong in the red zone, ranking third while allowing touchdowns on just 44.2 percent of 43 red zone trips (19). Cornerback Darqueze Dennard missed Friday’s practice will an illness and is questionable, but the Bengals get defensive end Sam Hubbard back from a knee injury.

4. Red zone offense struggles

Cincinnati has improved in almost every aspect except red zone offense, and that continues to be a point of emphasis, especially this week. The Patriots are the toughest defense to score against.

New England has allowed opponents into the red zone just 20 times this season and 10 of those have resulted in touchdowns.

The Bengals especially struggled in the red zone last week at Cleveland when they were just 1-for-5 inside the 20.

“It is frustrating when you leave points on the field like we did, but we have new opportunities this week,” Taylor said. “Our guys need to get after it.”

5. Milestone tracker

Bengals players Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd are both nearing 1,000 yards for a second straight year. Mixon has 789 yards rushing and Boyd 833 yards receiving, and although it’s unlikely they hit their mark Sunday, both are looking to close the gap.

Taylor said he doesn’t concern himself with milestones like that because the focus is just one winning, knowing if that happens, the stats probably come with it.

New England will be looking to contain both players. Boyd has been the team’s top receiver in A.J. Green’s absence, and Mixon is coming off a big game as he has heated up in the second half of the season.


Patriots at Bengals, 1 p.m., WHIO-TV Ch. 7, Ch. 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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