By: Ian Logue/
December 08, 2004

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FOXBORO, MA -- Who would have thought that before the season started that Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals could have been cause for concern for Patriots fans.

Coming down the stretch, the importance of each game continues to grow and life isn't about to get any easier as they get set to face the Bengals at Gillette Stadium this weekend.

While the Patriots survived the St. Louis Rams and beat them soundly in week nine 40-22 despite a secondary that was without their top cover corner in Ty Law, they'll have their hands full with a team who possesses two explosive receivers in Chad Johnson and T.J Houshmandzadeh. Both Bengals finished with 10 catches and each finished with over 150 yards receiving during Cincinnati's win over the Baltimore Ravens, and will likely be the first real challenge the Patriots injury-ridden defensive backfield has faced in a while.

"Just watching Cincinnati against those other teams and then being able to really study them this week, you just see how explosive they are,” Belichick told the media on Wednesday. "On the offensive side to the ball, these receivers are really big play receivers. [Chad] Johnson is leading the AFC. [Carson] Palmer has a tremendous arm and is very athletic back there in the pocket. He buys a lot of time. Those guys make a ton of big plays along with a complementary running game.”

That running game is lead by Rudi Johnson who has gained 1105 yards on 267 carries (4.1 avg) and has scored 7 touchdowns this season. Johnson carried 19 times for just 56 yards last week, but it was Cincinnati's passing game led by Carson Palmer that had to help overcome a 20-3 deficit for their come from behind win over Baltimore last Sunday.

The Bengals' passing game will likely cause the biggest problems with the Patriots defense. New England's secondary has allowed the second most number of long plays this season, and will need to avoid more big plays against the Bengals' explosive receiving corps.

"I'm worried about [Chad Johnson],” Belichick told the Cincinnati media on Wednesday via a conference call. "I'm worried about T.J. [Houshmandzadeh], I'm worried about Kelly, I'm worried about Schobel. I'm worried about all of them.”

Johnson's the obvious concern. Despite all the passing yards Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is racking up in Indianapolis, it's Johnson who leads the AFC in receiving yards with 1071. He's also second in the league in receptions with 75. Without a "shut down corner” the Patriots will need to try and get pressure on Palmer and force quick throws and try to prevent big plays, otherwise they may be in trouble.

"As I showed some of the plays to the team today, it's not like the coverage isn't good," Belichick said in regards to some of the Bengal's big plays. "The coverage, at times, looks really good. In fact you might even say, 'I'm not sure he should throw that ball.' The receivers just go up and take it away from them. They just go up and rebound it."

"They're very aggressive going for the ball. Palmer throws it up there high and the receivers go up high and get it and they come down with it and they're tough after the catch too."

But their biggest problem will be avoiding turnovers, which has been a problem for the Patriots this season. The Bengals are very good at creating them, forcing 31 fumbles so far this season along with Tory James who is tied for the NFL lead with 7 interceptions. Despite being a preseason game, the Bengals' first team had tremendous success against the Patriots during their 31-3 win over New England at Paul Brown Stadium and have continued to improve all year. With just four games left to play this season Belichick knows how important each week is, and will likely try to keep his team from taking a Cincinnati team who have their own playoff aspirations too lightly.

It's a game that may have appeared to be an easy victory before the season started but now certainly looks a bit different. Now hopefully Belichick can convince his players the same thing.

"Based where they were in preseason, it's kind of scary to think about them coming on more than when they bombed us out there in the first game,” said Belichick. "We'll need to be a lot better, to make it a lot more competitive this week.”

"[They are] a good football team. They had a big win against Baltimore. They scored 24 points in the fourth quarter to come back and beat the Ravens in Baltimore. That was pretty impressive. They're an explosive team and they can score a lot in a hurry. They've done that all through the year”