CINCINNATI — If the Patriots were hoping to have a little wiggle room down the stretch, they can kiss that notion goodbye. Losers of two straight, with the division and AFC’s second seed still in doubt, they can forget about taking their foot off the pedal and coasting to the finish line.
Sunday’s bout with the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium kicks off a succession of must-win games to close out the regular season. If the Patriots want to secure the No. 2 seed and lock up a coveted first-round bye, losing isn’t an option. They have to knock off the Bengals, Bills and Dolphins in order to guarantee their spot.
Defensive captain Devin McCourty didn’t argue with the assessment or blueprint going forward. He knows it’s go time for the Patriots.
“We’re definitely at that stage, especially this time of year,” McCourty said during his weekly press session. “We kind of were in a similar situation last year, and we talked about having a sense of urgency to really see every game as kind of a must-win. I don’t see it as, if you don’t win, the season’s over. But, I think your preparation . . . you have to prepare like (it’s must-win). That’s where we’re at.”
Adding a wrinkle into the players’ preparation was the immediate fallout of another videotaping controversy. On Monday, the Pats admitted a team-hired TV production crew illegally filmed the Bengals sideline during last Sunday’s game with the Browns. With an important game ahead, the players didn’t seem particularly bothered, even if the episode dredged up past cheating scandals involving the team.
Tight end Benjamin Watson acknowledged the Patriots were probably more adept than most teams at handling these types of distractions given they’ve had some practice. But the bottom line was keeping everyone focused on the job at hand.
“The guys in the room, we have to put the pads on and hit people. It doesn’t matter what type of controversy is going on.” said Watson. “It just gives us a chance to focus more on our job, and what we have to do, in spite of whatever may be going on, because a lot of times what’s out there doesn’t really concern us on a daily basis doing our job.”
McCourty said coming off a two-game losing streak, that’s reason enough to stop the bleeding and get it going back in the right direction.
Playing a team that’s 1-12 should help that cause, although the Patriots weren’t taking anything for granted.
“I think this is a football team that doesn’t have a good record, but they actually do a lot of things really well in all three phases of the game,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “I’ve been very impressed watching them play, and they cause a lot of problems.”
Thus far, the Patriots have gone 5-2 on the road, with the losses coming against the Ravens and Texans. The Bengals aren’t in the same stratosphere as those teams. The Pats, however, aren’t about to take them lightly.
“They’re a good football team. It’s the NFL. I mean, any given Sunday you can win or lose a game,” said running back James White. “Everybody has talent, everybody has good coaching and everybody has good players. So, you’ve got to be prepared and you’ve got to be ready to go.”
Zac Taylor is a first-year head coach. The Patriots are familiar with him from the Super Bowl, given he was on Sean McVay’s staff with the Rams as the quarterbacks coach. But since they don’t see the Bengals too often, it’s somewhat of an unfamiliar team.
“[Cincinnati is] a team we don’t know,” said Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “We’ve played them in the past and some of the guys we know, but there’s an awful lot of guys that we don’t know that we need to get familiar with quickly and do a good job of studying how they play and what they do so that we can avoid them putting us in disruptive situations and long-yardage plays on offense on Sunday.”
If the Patriots offensive line doesn’t improve and can’t block, Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap will become familiar right away. They’ll be in Tom Brady’s kitchen all afternoon.
Maybe they’ll finally get the run game going. The Bengals have surrendered an average of 156.7 yards per game, so it might behoove the Patriots to get moving with a ground attack, whether it’s White, Sony Michel, or Rex Burkhead.
They got it going last year around this time. Granted, the offensive line has struggled with injuries, and the tight ends don’t have the same pop blocking as Rob Gronkowski, but they’ll still need a presence whether it’s against the Bengals, Bills (9-4), or Dolphins (3-10).
“We have plenty of football left against some good opponents,” said White. “It’s going to be a great challenge for us. Nothing is going to be easy, nothing is going to be given to us, so we’ve got to go out there and earn it.”
Added Dont’a Hightower: “Just finish strong. That’s what we want to do.”
They have to win out. That’s the best recipe for locking in the No. 2 seed.
PREDICTION – Patriots 24, Bengals 6
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