- Field Yates, ESPN Insider
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Once the bottom-dweller of the AFC North, the Cincinnati Bengals rapidly have turned their franchise fortunes around and are now considered a playoff contender for the third straight season.
They’ve been a wild card entrant in the playoffs each of the past two seasons. Both times on the strength of an attacking defense and offense led by young talent, specifically wide receiver A.J. Green. One of the signature moments for the franchise in recent seasons was a trade that sent virtually retired Carson Palmer to the Raiders in exchange for a pair of drafts picks that ended up bringing cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and running back Giovani Bernard. Bernard was their second round pick this season.
The Patriots haven’t faced the Bengals since their resurgence to playoff contention, so for those less familiar with Cincinnati’s core, below is a primer of names and faces of note.
Record: 2-2 (T-1st in AFC North)
Head coach: Marvin Lewis (11th season)
Offensive coordinator: Jay Gruden
Defensive coordinator: Mike Zimmer
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. Wide receiver A.J. Green. Just a week after facing Julio Jones, the Patriots secondary gets a chance to square off against the one receiver selected ahead of Jones back in 2011. Since being drafted fourth overall, Green has been a touchdown machine for Cincinnati, posting 21 in his first two-plus seasons. The 6-foot-4, 207-pounder has terrific speed, exceptional hands and can run the full route tree. The Bengals love to let him use his leaping ability in the red zone and he has the full trust of quarterback Andy Dalton.
2. Running back Giovani Bernard. The exciting second-round rookie out of North Carolina has taken the Bengals' backfield by storm in recent weeks, cutting into the workload of former Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Bernard is an explosive and shifty 5-foo-9 back who catches the ball exceptionally well and will regularly make defenders miss in the hole. Green-Ellis is still very much a part of the Bengals' running back rotation, but Bernard already has proven that he’s a star in the making.
3. Quarterbac Andy Dalton. There are split opinions on Dalton. Many will point to his win total and the fact that he has reached the playoffs in each of his first two seasons as indicators that the Bengals have the right quarterback to lead the franchise. But the eye test suggests an inconsistent performer who some believe is closer to a game manager than an elite signal-caller. For now, Dalton is the go-to guy under center.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins. There may be no more underrated player around the league than Atkins, a recent recipient of a huge contract extension and a 2012 All-Pro. Atkins, who generated 12.5 sacks last season, offers the complete package as an interior force, as he is formidable against the run and can rush the passer with an impressive combination of quickness, power and relentless pursuit. The Georgia product will draw the attention of the Patriots' interior line all day.
2. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap/defensive end Michael Johnson. Both of these young defensive ends got paid this offseason, though in different ways. Johnson was the recipient of the franchise tag that entitled him to an eight-figure contract for this season. Dunalp, similar to Atkins, was handed a lucrative extension that reaffirms he is a major part of the Bengals' defensive plans. Zimmer will generate pressure with his schemes, but these two bookends possess a nightmare for offensive tackles with just their skills. Sebastian Vollmer's would be a major boon for the Patriots' offensive line.
3. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Undrafted after an underwhelming combine and pre-draft process in 2012, Burfict quickly made the Bengals look wise for investing in him by having one of the best seasons among any rookie defenders. He’s off to a great start for the Bengals again this season. He leads the team in tackles and added an interception during the team’s season opener. A capable player against the run and the pass, Burfict quickly has immersed himself as a centerpiece for the Bengals' linebacker group.
NOTES: Starting cornerbacks Kirkpatrick and Leon Hall were each inactive in Week 4 and have been dealing with injury issues lately. ... The Bengals have an enviable two-tight-end package centered around a pair of first-round picks: Jermaine Gresham (2010) and their top choice this year, Tyler Eifert. ... Left tackle Andrew Whitworth has battled injuries in the early goings this season, but he’s back in the lineup now. ... A familiar face has transitioned smoothly to a new AFC North team, as James Harrison dropped the black and yellow of Pittsburgh for the tiger stripes in Cincinnati.