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Monday, September 23, 2013
Patriots face three-week gauntlet

By Field Yates

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Speaking during his customary day-after-the-game press conference Monday afternoon, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick reinforced his team’s mantra of approaching its schedule on a week-by-week basis.

“Every week is a challenge in the National Football League,” he said. “Every team has good players, every team has good coaches. Every week is a challenge. Atlanta is a big challenge, but so was Tampa. We’ll turn the page on them and move on to Atlanta.”

No looking ahead, not past the next opponent, at least.

The formula is tried and true, as the Patriots are off to a 3-0 start, including two victories within the division.

While New England isn't in any rush to pull out the long-range lens, those of us on the outside have a harder time resisting the temptation.

In the next three weeks, the Patriots will face road tests in Atlanta and Cincinnati, then host the currently undefeated New Orleans Saints in a Week 6 showdown.

It’s a formidable task, and one that will help us learn more about a Patriots team that thus far has shown it has a competitive defense to go along with an offense that continues to work through some glitches -- but has an undeniably high upside with Tom Brady under center and the looming returns of tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Danny Amendola.

Breaking down the trio of opponents one by one, it’s easy to understand why each is regarded as a potential playoff team.

Atlanta Falcons

It starts with offense in Atlanta, where quarterback Matt Ryan leads one of the most explosive groups in the league. He’s flanked by superstar receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, who test a defense both down the field and in the intermediate passing game. While White has been limited thus far in 2013 due to a high-ankle sprain, Jones has proven to be a terror, leading the league with 373 receiving yards, including an 81-yard score against St. Louis in Week 2.

As if that duo wasn’t imposing enough, the Falcons roll out depth at receiver with talented slot man Harry Douglas, a speedy Louisville product who has seen his role increase with White hampered. Tight end Tony Gonzalez is the ultimate security blanket, regularly among the most-targeted red-zone receivers.

Coveted free agent running back Steven Jackson left St. Louis to provide the missing link for the Falcons, though he might not play this Sunday due to a thigh injury. His absence didn’t stop the Falcons from totaling 146 yards on the ground in the Week 3 loss to Miami, led by impressive efforts from Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling.

The Patriots defense is in for its toughest test yet come Sunday night.

Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati’s offense is no slouch, especially with receiver A.J. Green manning the perimeter and rookie running back Giovani Bernard providing a dynamic threat from the backfield.

But the area that the Patriots will likely focus on in preparing for the Bengals is finding a way to slow their vaunted front four, led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap, each a recent recipient of a mammoth contract extension.

As if that duo isn’t enough, the Bengals used their franchise tag this past offseason on defensive end Michael Johnson, whose freakish length and quickness make him a pass-rushing force. The Bengals are incredibly well coached by coordinator Mike Zimmer, who isn’t afraid to unleash the pressure through creative blitz designs.

With as much talent along the line as the Bengals have, they can live in an opposing backfield when bringing just four rushers.

New Orleans Saints

For many years, it’s been all about the offense in New Orleans. This season hasn’t been an exception in the sense that Drew Brees still leads one of the most productive passing attacks in football (he’s thrown for more than 300 yards in each game this season), but the defense has shaped up as well under new coordinator Rob Ryan.

Despite dealing with a rash of injuries to their front seven, the Saints are fifth in both yards and points allowed per game. They tamed the aforementioned Falcons, limiting Atlanta to just 17 points and 367 yards of total offense in Week 1.

The secondary has been aided by the instant impact of first-round safety Kenny Vaccaro, who notched his first career interception in Week 3. Defensive end Cameron Jordan has flourished in his new 3-4 role (Ryan installed his 3-4 system with the Saints after a year under Steve Spagnuolo featured four-man fronts) and all of sudden, balance is the trend in New Orleans.

There’s plenty of football to be played before this game takes place, but the Saints could prove to be the most difficult opponent the Patriots face before their bye week.