(Sports Network) - Though the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals both finished atop their respective divisions in 2009, both teams enter Sunday's season-opening showdown at Gillette Stadium with their share of skeptics and an unfulfilled feeling even after last year's accomplishments.
The 2009 Patriots recorded a seventh consecutive season of double-digit victories and captured a sixth AFC East title over that impressive era, but the team's quest to regain supremacy of a conference it had ruled for much of the past decade came to a swift and bitter end with a revealing 33-14 home loss to Baltimore in last January's Wild Card Playoffs. That one-sided defeat, in which New England was bullied for 234 rushing yards by the more-physical Ravens, has triggered a growing sense that the once-mighty Pats are now a decaying dynasty about to enter an inevitable phase of transition.
While the Patriots may be on the decline, it's still hard to overlook a team that has a former NFL MVP and three-time Super Bowl champion at quarterback (Tom Brady), plus a pair of prolific wide receivers (Randy Moss, Wes Welker) and one of the league's all-time mastermind game-planners in head coach Bill Belichick at its disposal. With that accomplished core still on hand, New England remains a dangerous foe, although how the club is able to withstand the absences of key contributors such as Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins (holdout) and defensive end Ty Warren (season-ending hip injury) may ultimately determine whether the Pats can continue their amazing run of success.
The Bengals produced one of the league's biggest turnarounds a year ago, reversing a dreadful 4-11-1 campaign in 2008 into a 10-win regular season that saved the bacon of head coach Marvin Lewis. But like their Week 1 opponents, Cincinnati's deficiencies were exposed in an opening-round playoff loss in its own building.
The 24-14 setback to the up-and-coming New York Jets divulged the Bengals' most glaring weakness, a lack of viable offensive playmakers to complement standout running back Cedric Benson and flashy wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. Cincinnati went to interesting lengths in an effort to resolve the issue, bringing in controversial wideout Terrell Owens just prior to training camp.
Putting Owens, a five-time All-Pro who'll turn 37 in December, opposite the equally-flamboyant Ochocinco gives the Bengals the unquestioned most colorful pass-catching duo in the league. The team also hopes the addition pays off on the field, as Cincinnati will be attempting to end a dubious trend of failure in seasons that have followed playoff runs.
The Bengals haven't reached the postseason in back-to-back years since 1981-82, and in their four most recent playoff trips have failed to achieve a winning record the subsequent season.
New England holds a 13-8 lead in the all-time series with Cincinnati, winning three in a row in the series since the Bengals scored their last victory in the series, a 23-17 win at home in 2001. The Patriots were 34-13 winners when they visited Paul Brown Stadium in Week 4 of the 2007 season, and earned a 35-28 decision when the teams last met in New England, in 2004. The Bengals are 0-4 in New England since last winning there in 1986.
Belichick is 12-3 in his career against the Bengals, including 4-1 while with the Patriots. Lewis is 0-3 against both Belichick and the Patriots as a head coach.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Most of the fans and media will likely be fixated on how the combination of Ochocinco (72 receptions, 1047 yards, 9 TD) and Owens (55 receptions, 5 TD) performs, but Cincinnati's success in 2009 was often predicated on how effective Benson (1251 rushing yards, 6 TD, 17 receptions) was between the tackles. The Bengals were 6-0 when the powerful back cranked out over 100 yards during the regular season, and he could find more lanes to run through this year with opponents having to show more respect to the pass. Owens may be getting up in years and has the reputation of being a drain in the locker room, but he's still a legitimate big-play threat and a sizeable upgrade over last year's starter, Laveraneus Coles. The Bengals added another weapon for steady quarterback Carson Palmer (3094 passing yards, 21 TD, 13 INT) via the first-round selection of tight end Jermaine Gresham in April's draft, with the Oklahoma product providing a receiving presence the team hasn't seen at the position in ages. Wide receiver and fellow rookie Jordan Shipley (3rd Round, Texas) should see immediate time working out of the slot, while promising sophomore Bernard Scott (321 rushing yards, 5 receptions) may take over regular third-down back Brian Leonard's (84 rushing yards, 30 receptions) duties with the latter presently sidelined with a sprained left foot.
Benson could be in for a banner day if the New England defense performs like it did in January's playoff loss to the Ravens, and the year-ending loss of the sturdy Warren is certainly a tough blow. The Patriots still have a top- tier stopper in the middle in two-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork (43 tackles), while the addition of physical rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes (2nd Round, Florida) alongside 2008 Defensive Rookie of the Year Jerod Mayo (103 tackles, 1.5 sacks) also figures to aid against the run. There are questions to answer in the secondary and in regards to the pass rush, however. With top cover man Leigh Bodden (shoulder) also done for the season, New England will field a green starting cornerback tandem of 2010 first-round pick Devin McCourty and second-year pro Darius Butler (35 tackles, 3 INT) on Sunday, while outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain (55 tackles, 10 sacks) is the only proven pressure-producer up front.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
New England ranked third in the NFL in passing offense (283.8 ypg) last season and got a nice bounce-back year out of Brady (4398 passing yards, 28 TD, 13 INT), who made a successful return from a serious knee injury suffered in the 2008 opener to start every game and register the second-highest yardage total of his brilliant career. The star signal-caller gave his team a scary moment after being involved in an auto accident on Thursday, but reportedly walked away unscathed and will be back in his customary role of slinging passes to Moss (83 receptions, 1264 yards, 13 TD) and favorite target Welker (1348 yards, 4 TD), whose 123 catches last year were the second-most in league history. The prolific slot receiver is a quick healer as well, having rehabbed an ACL tear suffered in the 2009 regular-season finale in time to participate in Sunday's game. His snaps may be limited, though, if capable understudy Julian Edelman (37 receptions, 1 TD) is able to play through an ankle injury that has the second-year surprise listed as questionable for the opener. Mankins, one of the game's best guards, definitely won't be available due to his nasty contract dispute with the organization, and neither will intended replacement Nick Kaczur after the converted tackle underwent back surgery in August. Their absences don't bode well for a running game that was non-existent for parts of last year and is headed up by two aging backs in 34-year-old Fred Taylor (269 rushing yards, 4 TD) and third-down specialist Kevin Faulk (335 rushing yards, 37 receptions, 3 total TD).
Cincinnati's 2009 resurgence also wouldn't have been possible without the stout play of a defense that surrendered the fourth-fewest yards in the league (301.4 ypg) despite being without its best pass rusher, Antwan Odom (19 tackles), for most of the year because of a torn Achilles he incurred in Week 6 of last season. The seventh-year end is back to lend support to a strong secondary headlined by the outstanding cornerback combo of Leon Hall (71 tackles, 6 INT, 24 PD) and Johnathan Joseph (69 tackles, 6 INT, 20 PD) and was further bolstered by the high-risk offseason pickup of Adam "Pacman" Jones. The troubled ex-Titan and Cowboy was out of football a year ago, but showed little rust while playing well in the preseason. Veteran Dhani Jones (113 tackles, 3.5 sacks), Cincy's top tackler in each of the past two seasons, is the leader and on-field coordinator of a quality linebacking group that also contains rugged run-stopper Rey Maualuga (63 tackles, 1 sack) on the strong side.
There are plenty of appealing fantasy choices in this intriguing Week 1 clash. The Patriots' terrific trio of Brady, Moss and Welker are always must-starts whenever they're in the lineup, although owners of the latter should prepare for a potential drop-off while he works his way back from his injury. New England's situation at running back is far more fluid, with Taylor, Faulk and the fumble-prone Laurence Maroney (757 rushing yards, 9 TD, 14 receptions) all possibilities to be the lead guy, so it's best to sit back and let the scenario play itself out early on. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski annually ranks among the top point-getters at his position and averaged two field goals per game at home last year.
Benson stands as Cincinnati's most reliable option and should be used in all formats, while both Ochocinco and Owens clearly merit consideration in what shapes up as a juicy matchup against New England's young corners. Upgrade Palmer as well for this week, but Gresham has more value right now as a dynasty-league stash than as a consistent weekly contributor. The Bengals defense is worth drafting, but there may be better alternatives out there with a high-powered offense on tap for this week.
It's been quite some time since the Patriots entered a season with so much uncertainty, and there's little question the Bengals have the personnel capable of exposing their opponents' perceived weak spots. Ochocinco and Owens hold a distinct experience edge on New England's raw but talented corners, and the dynamic duo should have their way unless the Pats can mount a consistent pass rush -- a big 'if' as well. That should help open up space for Benson, and the Bengals have shown to be a tough out whenever their workhorse back has a big day. While the Patriots are certainly able to prevail in a shootout, that still may be a tall order against a tough Cincinnati defense that will do just enough to prevent Brady and company from going ballistic.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 24, Patriots 20