Entering Week 4, there were unique schools of thought relating to the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals: Some wondered if the Patriots’ 3-0 start had an element of fools gold to it because the competition wasn’t particularly strong.
Conversely, some were ready to launch the Bengals into the conversation of the AFC’s best teams (outside of Denver) with back-to-back wins, including a home victory over the potent Green Bay Packers.
But as we enter Week 5, perceptions may have changed. The Patriots earned some new believers after doing something only one other team had done to the Falcons in the past 13 tries: beat them at home during the regular season. The defense looks to be capable of neutralizing a formidable passing attack, though a big blow came across the front with nose tackle Vince Wilfork tearing his Achilles.
The Bengals, meanwhile, were kept entirely in check by the Browns in Week 4, managing just a pair of field goals in a 17-6 defeat. The running game couldn’t get it going against a talented defensive front and quarterback Andy Dalton was underwhelming, failing to throw a touchdown pass for the first time this season.
But on Sunday, neither team will be concerned with what they have done thus far or even in the most recent week. It’s all about starting off the second quarter of the season off right.
When the two square off this Sunday, here’s what we’ll be watching for:
1. Gronk/Amendola watch. Another week, another period of waiting and wondering whether tight end Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm) and/or Danny Amendola (groin) will return to action. The narrative remains the same: Each has practiced on a limited basis and each appears to be improving, inching closer to a return. But until they step on the game field and rejoin the offense, this will be a primary storyline for the team. Tight end Matthew Mulligan became the first player at the position to score a touchdown for the Patriots this season during the Week 4 win, but suffice it to say that the absence of Gronk has dramatically impacted the role of tight ends. If Gronk doesn’t play, the Patriots will be down to just two tight ends, having released Zach Sudfeld on Thursday. Amendola, meanwhile, has been substituted for by Julian Edelman, who admirably is tied for the lead in the NFL with 34 catches.
Update, Saturday 3:00 p.m.: A league source tells ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter that Gronkowski did not travel to Cincinnati and won't play, but Amendola did make the trip.
2. Replacing Wilfork. The Patriots opted not to seek external help in their quest to replace Wilfork, who was placed on injured reserve on Thursday. The likeliest scenario is an internal promotion from the practice squad, as both Marcus Forston and A.J. Francis project as candidates to be called up (we’d suspect there’s room for just one of them). While Wilfork’s impact is difficult to quantify in many ways, there’s a fitting stat worth passing: with Wilfork off the field, the Patriots have allowed 5.0 yards per rush compared to 4.1 when he is on it. The Bengals have an exciting young back in Gio Bernard that will put the Patriots new look run defense to the test.
3. Protecting Brady. A prevailing theme from the week was just how disruptive and dangerous the Bengals pass rush can be, led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins and extending to the perimeter with both Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. As quarterback Tom Brady noted, the Bengals are particularly dangerous because not only is their starting group a handful, but their back-ups are talented too. A particular focus should be paid to Atkins, who Bill Belichick suggested would be worthy of the top overall pick if the 2010 draft -- during which he was taken in the fourth round -- was redone. The Patriots offensive line has allowed just seven sacks thus far in 2013, but Sunday will present a unique test.
4. Containing Green. Another week, another test against a top member of the 2011 draft. Just seven days following a matchup with Julio Jones, the Patriots secondary will have to take on the lone receiver drafted ahead of Jones, A.J. Green. In just 36 pro games, Green already has 21 scores. He’s a dynamic downfield threat that can do it all from a route-running perspective. He was limited to just 51 yards receiving in Week 4 (due in large part to a stingy defensive effort from Browns cornerback Joe Haden), but was still targeted 15 times. In the red zone and everywhere else, Green is a top option for Dalton.
5. Red zone efficiency. The Patriots offense is getting there as it relates to red zone scoring, but there’s still work to be done. After scoring touchdowns in two of three red zone trips last Sunday night, the team will look to build on its momentum and aim to regain the form it had throughout much of the 2012 regular season. That will be aided in a big way when both Gronkowski and Amendola return, as each -- particularly Gronkowski -- adds a multitude of layers to what they can accomplish in the condensed portion of the field. The Bengals have allowed their opponents to score touchdowns in nearly 73 percent of their red zone trips, seventh worst in the NFL.