CINCINNATI (AP) — Zac Taylor watched helplessly on the Rams’ sideline as Bill Belichick’s defense thwarted everything they tried to do in the Super Bowl. The first-year Bengals coach has even fewer options at hand when they go head-to-head again.
The Patriots can clinch their 11th straight playoff appearance Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium by thwarting Taylor’s best designs. He was the Rams’ quarterbacks coach when New England won the title.
This time he’ll be calling the plays and knowing what to expect from that deflating Super Bowl experience.
“That was a heck of a day in a lot of ways,” Taylor said. “They do a great job adapting to their opponent. They always have a great plan in place, and that’s what makes them difficult.
“They do a great job evolving because they’ve been together for so long.”
Taylor’s Bengals (1-12) haven’t done much against lesser defenses this season. They’re reliant on running back Joe Mixon to get yards. The NFL’s only one-win team has to play nearly perfect to pull off the upset.
“They’re very opportunistic,” said Andy Dalton, who threw a pick-6 in a loss at Cleveland last weekend. “When they see a tipped ball that’s up in the air, they’re coming down with interceptions. They’re great at forcing fumbles, and all that stuff.”
The Patriots (10-3) see few similarities between the Bengals’ offense and the one they mastered in the Super Bowl.
“It’s not really the same offense,” safety Devin McCourty said. “There’s some crossover in there, but I would say you gotta kind of watch Cincinnati for Cincinnati.”
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION
The matchup got a little extra intrigue when a video crew affiliated with the Patriots was caught taping the Bengals’ sideline from the press box during their loss at Cleveland. The Patriots acknowledged the crew improperly videotaped while doing a feature on a scout. The Bengals were curious to see how the NFL responds.
New England’s persistent issues on offense have gotten worse in the last five games. The Patriots are 2-3 over that stretch, averaging only 17.6 points. They’ve also had big problems on third down and in the red zone. For the season the Patriots rank 17th in third-down conversion percentage (37.4%). They are also scoring on only 48% of their trips inside the 20-yard line, which ranks 27th in the league. The Bengals’ defense has improved significantly the last four games, giving up 20 points or less, and it’s been particularly good in the red zone, allowing only 19 touchdowns this season.
Of the seven 2019 draft picks currently on the Patriots’ roster, only punter Jake Bailey and edge rusher Chase Winovich have received significant playing time. Receiver N’Keal Harry, chosen 32nd overall, is slowly being integrated into the offense after sitting out the first eight games with an ankle injury. Since returning in November he has appeared in the past four games with two starts.
Belichick said he has been pleased with the contributions of Bailey and Winovich, who is second on the team with 5 1/2 sacks. He said the lack of playing time for other rookies isn’t an indication of a lack of trust in them.
“Things change week to week based on game-plan situations,” Belichick said. “We’re 10-3, I wouldn’t say we’re a terrible team. But there’s a lot of other good players out there.”
The Bengals’ best chance for the upset is to make some space for Mixon. He has been by far their best player on offense and is coming off a career-best 146 yards rushing in the 27-19 loss in Cleveland. The Bengals changed their blocking schemes and started running toss plays with Mixon at midseason, and he’s become a threat again. In the past five games, he’s picked up 469 yards — third-most in the league — and he leads all running backs with 105 carries over that span.
“I think we are starting to build an identity,” Mixon said.
Bengals receiver John Ross III returned last week after missing eight games with a shoulder injury. He had only two catches for 28 yards and dropped the other pass thrown his way. The Bengals have lacked a deep threat with Ross hurt and A.J. Green recovering from ankle surgery. They could use a big game from Ross against the Patriots. Injuries have limited him all three years in the NFL, so he wants to have a strong finish to this one.
“That’s the biggest thing I want do to, to be able to finish, and I’ve got the chance these last couple games,” Ross said.