If the Cincinnati Bengals are going to avoid losing for the fourth time in five weeks, they’re going to have to beat one of the best teams in the league, on the road, with one of the best quarterbacks in history making his anticipated home debut after a controversial suspension.
With Tom Brady at quarterback, the New England Patriots are 48-1 in their last 49 games against AFC opponents, and the lone loss was a season finale when New England already had clinched the No. 1 seed.
Two of those wins were by a combined 40 points against the Bengals, who haven’t won at New England since 1986.
Here are 7 things to watch for when the Bengals (2-3) try to pull off the upset against the Patriots (4-1);
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A strong start is always helpful when playing on the road, and it will be especially important Sunday with all the fervor surrounding Brady’s home debut.
The last time the Bengals went to Gillette Stadium, Brady directed back-to-back touchdown drives for a quick 14-0 lead that turned into a 43-17 rout.
Even when Brady was suspended, the Patriots were jumping on teams early with Jimmy Garappolo and Jacoby Brissett. The 50 points they’ve scored in the first quarter lead the NFL.
The Bengals, meanwhile, have surrendered touchdowns on the opponent’s opening drive in the last two games and three of five.
The Bengals have given up 17 sacks through five games, putting them on pace for 54, which would be the team’s most since allowing 63 in 1979.
The New England defense only has nine sacks, which is tied for 22nd in the league, but if there is one thing Patriots coach Bill Belichick does better than taking away an opponent’s strength, it’s exploiting its weakness.
Right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi has struggled in his first season as a starter, and he’ll have to contend with veteran defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who has yet to record his first sack this season after registering a combined 30.5 the last four years.
Red zone revival
The two touchdowns the Bengals scored late in the Dallas game may have been meaningless in terms of the outcome, but the team is hoping they can be the impetus for better success in the red zone.
The Bengals entered last week ranked last in the league in red-zone touchdown percentage at 30.8, but the 2-for-2 performance bumped them to 40 percent, which is still tied for 29th.
While Cincinnati remains one of the worst red-zone offenses, New England has one of the worst defenses. The Patriots have allowed eight touchdowns on 10 red-zone possessions, which has them tied for 30th.
Former Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell scored both of those red-zone touchdowns last week as he set a season high with eight receptions.
LaFell no doubt will be motivated to play well against a New England team that opted to let him walk in free agency after last year, and the Bengals will need another big game from him with A.J. Green expected to draw a lot of attention from the Patriots defense.
Dalton targeted LaFell 11 times last week, which was two shy of the receiver’s career high.
Hogan’s a hero
While much of the talk this week has been about how the Bengals will defend New England’s tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, the Patriots have an emerging star in wide receiver Chris Hogan who seemed to have an instant connection with Brady in the quarterback’s season debut last week.
Hogan, who was undrafted out Monmouth College and cut by the 49ers, Giants and Dolphins before spending four seasons in Buffalo, had receptions of 63 and 43 yards on the way to his first career 100-yard game.
In his first season in New England, Hogan is averaging 19.7 yards per catch, which ranks fourth in the league among players with at least 10 receptions.
New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski has struggled this season with three misses already, including one in each of the last two games.
The fourth most accurate kicker in NFL history at 86.8 percent and a four-time Pro Bowler, Gostowski hasn’t missed more than three field goals in an entire season since 2012.
Gostkowski hit a game-winning 32-yarder in the season opener at Arizona, but his recent struggles could be an issue if the Bengals can keep the game close into the fourth quarter.
Race to 23
The magic number both teams is 23. The Bengals are 33-1-1 in the last 35 games in which they have scored at least 23 points. Since 2001, the Patriots are 168-14 when scoring at least 23.
Getting to 23 has been a challenge for the Bengals this season. They only time they reached it was in 23-22 win against the Jets in the season opener. New England, on the other hand, has hit the mark in four of five games this year.