New England Patriots vs. Cincinnati Bengals: NFL Week 6 game preview, prediction
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. TV: CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn.
SERIES HISTORY: 25th regular-season meeting. Patriots lead series, 15-9. New England is 9-2 all-time against the Bengals at home, including a 43-17 win in 2014. The series dates to the old American Football League with the inaugural game played at Fenway Park in 1968 when Cincinnati was an expansion franchise.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Bengals have not won at New England since 1986. The Patriots won nine of 11 meetings at home. For Cincinnati, winning at Gillette Stadium in Pats QB Tom Brady‘s home debut this season will be a major challenge, especially following a loss at Dallas. But the Bengals must respond because falling to 2-4 would put Cincinnati in dire straits in terms of contending in the AFC North and reaching the postseason for a sixth consecutive season.
Bengals QB Andy Dalton has been sacked 17 times through five games, perhaps the most telling statistic outlining the Bengals’ struggles on the offensive line.
Conversely, Brady threw for 406 yards to lead the Patriots to a 33-13 win last Sunday afternoon in his return from the four-game Deflategate suspension. It was a classic New England passing attack that earned Brady AFC Player of the Week honors (his 27th such honor) as the 39-year-old made it clear that he still shows no signs of aging despite his delayed 2016 debut.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Patriots CB Malcolm Butler vs. Bengals WR A.J. Green. Butler, who intercepted two passes in the Super Bowl in 2014, likely will spend a lot of time covering Green, who has 36 catches for 518 yards and two touchdowns this season. Butler has 19 PD since 2015, most on team.
–Patriots TE Martellus Bennett vs. Cincinnati’s linebackers and secondary. Rob Gronkowski is a household name, but Bennett gives the Pats an almost unstoppable one-two punch. Marty, as he is called, leads the team with 314 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
FAST FACTS: Cincinnati won 10 straight games when Dalton had a rating of 100 or better, but that streak ended when the Bengals lost at Dallas (38-14) despite Dalton’s 104.6 passer rating. … The Bengals went 17 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher before the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 134 yards. … Brady has 195 wins (regular and post-season) as a starter, trailing only Brett Favre (199) and Peyton Manning (200) for most in NFL history. … RB Le Garrette Blount is tied for 3rd in NFL with 5 TDs rushing and ranks 4th in AFC with 389 yards rushing.
PREDICTION: Brady’s home opener in wake of Deflategate debacle is probably not good for any visiting team.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 28-17
San Francisco 49ers (1-4) at Buffalo Bills (3-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, New Era Field, Orchard Park, N.Y. TV: FOX, Dick Stockton, Chris Spielman, Krista Pink.
SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. 49ers lead series, 6-5. The teams have met every fourth year since 2004, with the 49ers going 2-1 over that stretch. The 49ers prevailed both in the last meeting at home (45-3 in 2012) and at Buffalo (10-3 in 2008). The Bills’ last win in the series was 41-7 at San Francisco in 2004. The clubs have never met in the playoffs.
KEYS TO THE GAME: 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick now must stand up for himself after the national anthem as coach Chip Kelly decided to start the controversial veteran of good and bad times with San Francisco.
The change comes after Blaine Gabbert led the 49ers to a 1-4 start while ranking 28th in passing yards (890), 26th in completion percentage (58.0), 22nd in touchdown passes (five) and 30th in quarterback rating (69.6). Kelly is concerned about changing the team’s direction as he eyes home games against Tampa Bay and New Orleans sandwiching a bye in the next three weeks.
“There’s a lot of great things this offense does and allows the quarterback to do,” Kaepernick said of the offense coach Kelly imported from Oregon (via Philadelphia). “It’s similar to things I’ve done in college, and that makes me feel very comfortable in it.”
After early-season reports he was on the hot seat, Bills coach Rex Ryan is aware that three straight wins only buy time in the NFL and doesn’t guarantee anything.
“We’ve won three games in a row, but we haven’t won four games in a row,” Ryan said. “We need to focus on this opponent, and we will. If we lose, it’s not going to have anything to with the fact that we overlooked somebody. That’s not happening here, we’re not good enough to overlook anybody, let alone the 49ers.”
A key to the Bills’ turnaround is their defensive play in the red zone, where they were inefficient last year. Now they are second in the NFL after allowing only six touchdowns on 16 trips, a 37 percent rate. Only Carolina is better at 33.3 percent.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–49ers QB Colin Kaepernick vs. Bills OLB Lorenzo Alexander. Kaepernick has fresh legs, and chances are he’s going to be able to show them off with Alexander in pursuit. The Buffalo pass-rushing specialist already has a league-high seven sacks, and now he gets to set his sights on a first-time starter in a new system.
–Bills RB LeSean McCoy vs. 49ers ILB Nick Bellore. Bellore started in place of injured NaVorro Bowman last week and led the team with 11 tackles. That’s the good news. He spent most of the day chasing Arizona Cardinals back David Johnson, who ran circles around the San Francisco defense. Enter McCoy, who has rushed for 330 yards in the last three weeks, helping produce three straight wins. There’s no reason to deviate from that approach this week.
FAST FACTS: 49ers are literally stealing points, scoring on every takeaway this season. Their 45 points off takeaways are third in the league behind Arizona (47) and Denver (46). … RB Carlos Hyde tallied 114 scrimmage yards (78 rush, 36 receiving) and a TD last week and is tied NFL lead with six rushing TDs. … Bills QB Tyrod Taylor seeks his fourth win in a row vs. the NFC. Since 2015, he is one of two NFL QBs with 95-plus (96.6) and 700-plus rushing yards (736). … Buffalo is averaging 178.3 rush yards per game in the past three. RB LeSean McCoy has a TD in three of four games vs. San Francisco and is the only NFL player with 7,000 rushing (7,497) and 2,000 receiving (2,361) yards since 2010.
PREDICTION: Considering the disparity in records, this should be an easy call, but Kaepernick’s presence could unhinge the Bills’ defense to some degree.
OUR PICK: Bills, 34-21
Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1) at Miami Dolphins (1-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla. TV: CBS, Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots, Chris Fischer.
SERIES HISTORY: 23rd regular-season meeting. Steelers lead the series, 12-10. The Dolphins won the most recent meeting, 34-28, at Heinz Field in 2013, but the Steelers won five consecutive before that. They’ve met in the playoffs three times, with the Dolphins winning the most recent playoff game in 1984. That was a 45-28 victory over the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game, which was the last time the Dolphins advanced to the Super Bowl.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Everyone knows how dangerous the Ben Roethlisberger-led Steelers passing game is, but the concern for the Dolphins begins with the ground game. Miami is allowing an NFL-high average of 150.8 rushing yards per game, which the coaching staff blames on poor gap control and tackling – two issues that plagued the team last season. The Dolphins have invested heavily in their defensive line, but if RBs Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams are having their way in the ground game, the Dolphins will be at Big Ben’s mercy.
The Dolphins have been equally inconsistent on the offensive side of the ball. To put it in coach Adam Gase’s words, they have been “inept.” Gase wants to use the passing game to set up the run, but the offensive line has been unable to protected QB Ryan Tannehill (17 sacks), and he in turn has continued to struggle to read defenses. The Steelers enter with the league’s 30th-ranked passing game, but their 3-4 scheme will cause Tannehill issues if Miami can’t establish some sort of ground game and ease the pass rush. The Dolphins are averaging just 72.4 rushing yards per game, 31st in the NFL, while the Steelers are allowing just 77.0 rushing yards per game. Miami must attempt to run the ball early, especially with Steelers DL Cam Heyward (hamstring) out and ILB Ryan Shazier (knee) questionable.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. Dolphins secondary. Big Ben has set a franchise record with 15 touchdown passes through five games. The Dolphins rank 16th in passing yards allowed per game (250.2) and continue to juggle their coverage unit. Byron Maxwell lost his starting job, but rookie Xavien Howard is out with a knee injury and the team claimed former Carolina starter Bene Benwikere off waivers this week.
–Steelers defensive line vs. Dolphins offensive line. Miami cut linemen Dallas Thomas, Billy Turner and Jamil Douglas on Tuesday — a sign of just how porous the protection for Tannehill has been. And 2014 first-round pick RT Ja’Wuan James has allowed at least four sacks over the past four games. LT Branden Albert and LG Laremy Tunsil, who missed last week’s game after reportedly injuring his ankle during a fall in the shower, should play, but the issues across Miami’s offensive line remain widespread.
FAST FACTS: Steelers second-year WR Sammie Coast has a catch of 40-plus yards in every game this season. The franchise record is six, held by Mike Wallace. … The only contributing members remaining from the Dolphins’ 2013 draft class are linebacker Jelani Jenkins and tight end Dion Sims, a pair of fourth-round picks.
PREDICTION: Outside of a major egg in a 34-3 Week 3 loss at Philadelphia, the Steelers have displayed dominating form with a high-octane offense that the Dolphins will be hard-pressed to contain. Meanwhile, Miami cut three rotational offensive linemen this week in a sign that new head coach Adam Gase, who called his unit “inept,” realizes major personnel changes are needed in order to be competitive.
OUR PICK: Steelers, 37-26