The Cincinnati Bengals secured their second straight playoff berth Thursday night without playing a game, but they still have eyes on a bigger prize.
Cincinnati (10-4) plays at New England (7-7) on Saturday looking to build on a six-game winning streak and maintain its position atop the AFC North while trying to climb to a No. 1 playoff seed. The Bengals punched their playoff ticket with the New York Jets’ loss to Jacksonville on Thursday, but they remain in the No. 3 spot in the AFC behind Buffalo and Kansas City with three games to go.
Here are five things to know about the game:
1. Hendrickson, Hilton return
Hendrickson broke his wrist in the Week 14 win over the Browns but finished the game and didn’t get it addressed until afterward. He told reporters Thursday that multiple doctors confirmed the injury could not get worse, so he plans to play through the pain with a protective brace, instead of a cast, so he can have more mobility and grip.
“At this point in the season we have spent more time together than we have with our family and we are a family,” Hendrickson said. “They would lay it on the line for me, and there are guys whose livelihoods are at stake.”
Hilton also got hurt in the game against the Browns and returned but his knee swelled up afterward so he was sidelined last week as a precaution to ensure he is healthy for the playoffs.
2. “The cat and mouse game”
Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan called Bill Belichick’s defense a “cat and mouse game” because of his tactical knowledge and the Patriots’ ability to take away the opponents’ best weapon. But if there is an offensive equivalent to that, the Bengals just might be it.
Saturday’s game will be a test for the play callers. New England has a top 10 defense, allowing just 19.2 points per game, 110.3 yards rushing and 202.0 yards passing.
Cincinnati has a top 10 offense, producing 26.4 points per game (tied for fifth most), 362.1 net yards (10th) and 262.1 yards passing (sixth) while led by Joe Burrow and wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. The Bengals also are fourth in touchdown percentage in red-zone opportunities, scoring 34 touchdowns in 50 chances inside the 20-yard line.
“They mold their defense to whatever you have in place that week, and that’s always been a strength,” Callahan said. “They’re a great game-plan defense. They do you have things they’re good at, the things they lean on, but they’re always going to make it difficult for you on offense and you hope that with the way we’re constructed that they have a hard time deciding where it is they want to go with who they’re going to take away because I think we’ve proven that all of our guys can beat one-on-one matchups and win one-on-one matchups and you know, that’s the cat and mouse game come Saturday. But yeah, I’d like to think that we match up pretty well and that they’re going to have their hands full too.”
Patriots cornerback Jalen Mills is out with a groin injury, and cornerbacks Jack Jones (knee) and Jonathan Jones (chest) are questionable to play.
3. Keeping Burrow upright
While center Ted Karras makes his return to New England, where he spent five of his first seven seasons in the NFL, the focus for this game won’t be so much on the interior linemen play.
The Bengals will have their hands full with the Patriots’ edge rushers — Matt Judon (14.5 sacks) and Josh Uche (10.5 sacks). Cincinnati hasn’t allowed more than two sacks in a game since Week 8 at Cleveland.
“They’re very smart and they’ll pressure you,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “They do a really good job with their matchups. They’ve done a really good job getting teams off schedule. Finishing teams on third down. It’s a really well coached group and a really well talented group. And they play really hard and smart. And it presents a lot of challenges.”
4. Big opportunity for the defense
This could be a big game for the Bengals’ defense, which is allowing just 20.6 points per game (tied for 10th). Cincinnati has been especially good against the run but also has produced 19 turnovers (10th most).
New England’s offense has some key players trying to work through injuries, and the Patriots have been inconsistent on that side of the ball with Mac Jones having more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (seven). He’s thrown for 2,310 yards in 11 games and had just 112 yards passing last week at Las Vegas. The Patriots also could be without their top two receivers, as DeVante Parker is out with a concussion, and Jakobi Meyers is questionable with a shoulder injury.
Running back Rhamondre Stevenson has been solid with 914 yards rushing, but he is questionable with an ankle injury that limited him all week, and backup Damien Harris also is questionable with a thigh injury.
5. Hard to beat
The Bengals have been tough to beat this season, and that has been the case even on the road. They closed out competitive games at New Orleans, Tennessee and Tampa Bay during their stretch of eight wins in nine games, and that should give Cincinnati some added confidence going into a hostile environment on Christmas Eve at Gillette Stadium.
“I think overall we’re just playing really good football,” Taylor said. “Sometimes you know I always like getting that feeling of playing on the road in front of fans that hate you and we’ve had pretty good turnouts there, there’s something to that we enjoy. More so, I enjoy playing at home in front of our crowd because they’ve been really good lately. I think the bottom line is we just like playing football. It doesn’t matter where you do it, it can be anywhere, in a park somewhere. This team is just a team that likes to go out there on Saturdays, Sundays and go play ball.”
Bengals at Patriots, 1 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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