Referring to an offense that failed to get into the end zone last week as "explosive" might sound strange, but New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick isn't about to underestimate the Cincinnati Bengals.
That's especially true with the anchor of his defensive line likely out for the rest of the season.
New England seeks its first 5-0 start in six years Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium while looking to keep Cincinnati's offense sputtering despite the absence of Vince Wilfork.
Wilfork, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, suffered a torn right Achilles tendon in last week's 30-23 win over Atlanta, leaving a defense allowing 346.0 yards per game without one of its top players.
Undrafted rookie Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, a sixth-round pick of Houston who was cut by the Texans and Tampa Bay, are expected to split time in Wilfork's place.
"You just don't replace Vince Wilfork," Belichick said. "We'll still have his presence around the team and in the locker room and those types of things, which he's great at. On the field we'll miss him, but whoever is out there, those other 11 guys that are out there, we're all going to have to pull a little bit harder."
If the Bengals' offense looks anything like it did last week in a 17-6 loss to Cleveland, the Patriots may not have much to worry about. Cincinnati committed two turnovers and totaled 266 yards, including 63 on the ground. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who played four seasons with New England and had a 1,008-yard campaign in 2010, rushed only six times for 13 yards.
Andy Dalton had another rough day, going 23 of 42 for 206 yards and an interception, while A.J. Green caught seven passes for 51 yards and is averaging only 46.0 over the last three weeks.
Still, Belichick knows Cincinnati (2-2) - which has scored 54 points in two home games - has the potential to put points on the board.
"I feel like we're going up against a real explosive team this week," Belichick said. "They're a good football team that can really score from any place on the field with any of their units. I think those are the kind of things that we really have to do a good job on - taking care of the ball, being able to handle their explosive players and explosive plays and staying out of long-yardage and bad situations offensively."
While the Patriots, who have won three games by seven points or fewer, seek their best start since going unbeaten in the 2007 regular season, Tom Brady knows there's still plenty of question marks surrounding the team given its overall health.
"Like every team, we put a lot of work into a season and we're trying to make improvements every week," Brady said. "4-0 is obviously off to a good start. Hopefully we can continue that. We're trying to get better this week."
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis hopes his team can be much better.
"This is a team we've got to play very well against," Lewis said. "We need to play better football. We can draw things, and put words on paper and do all those things, but we need to go out and execute and play winning football. This is a good week and a good chance to go out and compete and win the battles and eventually, hopefully, win the war. I'm looking forward to it."
Though Lewis refused to put all the blame for the offense's inconsistency on Dalton, he made clear his young quarterback needs to play better. Cincinnati ranks 22nd in total offense (327.5 yards per game) with six turnovers over the last two weeks, including two interceptions and a pair of fumbles from Dalton.
"I think we haven't played to our potential yet," Dalton said. "We've done some good things and we've done some things that have hurt us. The biggest thing is, we've got to keep getting better. I expect that, especially this week."
Belichick believes Dalton will present a tough challenge.
"I think he's a good, solid player for them at that position with very good skill players around him and an experienced offensive line," Belichick said. "Like I said, it's an explosive offense."
The Patriots have won seven of the last eight meetings with the Bengals, including all four with Brady under center. He's completed 69.7 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns in those matchups.
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