New England Patriots (3-0) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-2)
KICKOFF: Monday, 8:30 ET
TV: ESPN, Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski, Tony Kornheiser, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya
SERIES: 21st meeting. Patriots lead 12-8, but the Bengals lead 6-5 as the home team. The Patriots won the most recent meeting, 38-13 last season at Paul Brown Stadium. In 1988, a Super Bowl-bound Bengals team opened the season with a 6-0 start before suffering its first loss, 27-21 at New England. The series began at baseball's storied Fenway Park in Boston. In an American Football League game in 1968, the Patriots defeated the expansion Bengals, 33-14.
PREDICTION: Patriots 34-23
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots should move the ball with relative ease, with QB Tom Brady picking apart the Bengals' secondary with his slew of quality receivers. The only real questions are if Cincinnati can hold tight in the red zone and limit New England to field goals, and if the Bengals' opportunistic defense can create the game-changing plays the team needs to keep pace. ... The Patriots' defense has allowed five touchdowns in five red-zone possessions this season, and the Bengals must cash in on every opportunity and turn this into a primetime shootout. The key for the Bengals is getting some production out of Kenny Watson if Rudi Johnson can't go. When Cincinnati fell behind in last year's meeting, QB Carson Palmer was hounded mercilessly by New England's pass rush.
KEY INJURIES: Patriots: OG Stephen Neal (shoulder) has missed the past two games and is questionable. Bengals: Johnson (hamstring) is questionable; WR Tab Perry (hamstring) is out; C Eric Ghiaciuc (thumb) should be available.
FAST FACTS: Patriots WR Randy Moss is on pace to catch 117 passes for 2,149 yards and 27 touchdowns this season. ... The Bengals are 6-0 in the orange jerseys they will wear Monday night. They are only allowed to wear them twice per season.
--WR Donte' Stallworth hasn't been a big part of the offense up to this point. Stallworth only has four receptions for 66 yards in the Patriots' first three games. However, he could be ready to break out soon. According to head coach Bill Belichick, Stallworth is coming off two good weeks of practice.
"I think he's had two real good weeks of practice, too," Belichick said. "The last couple of weeks he's practiced well. He had another good day out there yesterday. We were talking about it in there watching the tape last night. He had another good day of practice. I think he's working hard. I think he's doing fine. Who knows who will get the opportunities, but I'm confident that when he gets his chances he'll make the plays."
--The team still had one spot open on its practice squad but filled it by re-signing defensive lineman Zach West. The Patriots originally signed West as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Texas-El Paso on May 8, 2007. He was released by the Patriots in the final preseason roster cutdown on Sept. 1, 2007. West started 32 games at defensive tackle in his collegiate career at UTEP.
--QB Matt Gutierrez and practice squad players WR Bam Childress and S Ray Ventrone were recipients of black jerseys for being practice players of the week.
--QB Tom Brady (right shoulder) had limited participation in practice on Friday. Brady is just resting his arm and will be in the starting lineup Monday against the Bengals.
--LB Rosevelt Colvin (ankle) had limited participation in practice on Friday.
--CB Randall Gay (thigh) had limited participation in practice on Friday. Gay had been starting in place of Asante Samuel but Samuel regained his starting spot against the Bills.
--RB Laurence Maroney (groin) had limited participation in practice on Friday.
--G Stephen Neal (shoulder) had limited participation in practice on Friday. Neal has missed the past two games with the shoulder injury.
--NT Vince Wilfork had limited participation in practice on Friday. Wilfork is expected to start Monday night.
--RB Rudi Johnson, who has played in 64 consecutive games, is out with a hamstring injury.
--MLB Ahmad Brooks (groin) was limited in practice Friday. He is expected to start Monday night and will be needed in the rush defense against Lawrence Maroney.
--LB Caleb Miller (back) did not practice.
--WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (knee) was limited in practice Friday. He leads the NFL with 29 receptions and will play Monday night.
--C Eric Ghiaciuc (thumb) participated fully in practice on Friday. The Bengals continue to get solid play from their backup offensive linemen, including center Alex Stepanovich, who started the last two games in place of Ghiaciuc.
--RT Willie Anderson (foot) did not practice Thursday, but returned to participate fully on Friday. He is not expected to practice on consecutive days all season.
A CLOSER LOOK
The Patriots have been almost flawless in their first three games, easily dispatching the Jets, Chargers and Bills. After three weeks, New England ranked first in the NFL in both total offense and defense. And while the defense has been impressive overall, it has struggled in one key area: red zone defense.
It's not common for a Bill Belichick led defense to have problems in the red zone. Last season, New England only allowed its opposition to reach the red zone 35 times in 16 games. And out of those 35 trips, the Patriots only gave up 12 touchdowns. They held teams to field goals 14 times and stifled scoring drives the other nine. Only the Baltimore Ravens did a better job playing red zone defense in 2006, allowing 11 touchdowns in 33 opportunities.
Those impressive numbers make this season's uncharacteristic struggles even more head scratching. Through three weeks, opposing teams have entered the red zone five times against the Patriots and all five times those drives ended up in six points.
Belichick was particularly agitated when he was asked about his defense's ineptitude in the red zone this season.
"We haven't stopped anybody all year," a disgusted Belichick scowled after the Bills game. "It's been a focus. We have to do a better job down there. We have to coach it better. We have to play it better. We have to do a better job. We're going to have to stop somebody sometime. We haven't stopped anybody yet.
"It starts with me; coach them a little better then maybe we'll play better. If we play better, maybe we'll stop somebody. We need to do that. You can't let them in the end zone every time they cross the 20-yard line. It's ridiculous. Like I said, it's a combination of bad coaching and bad playing. Hopefully we can do a better job going forward. It wouldn't take much."
Allowing teams to score 100 percent of the time obviously puts the Patriots at the bottom of the league in terms of red zone defense. One bright spot is the five red zone appearances the Patriots have allowed through three weeks ranks second to the Steelers four. But that's little consolation to the players, who are just as angry as their coach when it comes to their poor performance this season.
"You can't get any worse than we are. We're 0-for, so it's definitely an area on the defense we need to address," Rosevelt Colvin said. "We just haven't been able to stop teams. A play here or a play there changes the outcome of that specific drive. We try to keep teams out of the red zone but if they do get down there, we need to stop them from scoring."
Luckily for the Patriots, their generosity in the red zone didn't hurt the team in its first three games because they were all blowouts. However, if this disturbing trend continues in future games against the better teams on New England's schedule, it could be the deciding factor between winning and losing.
"We've given up pretty much one every game and it's kind of frustrating," Mike Vrabel said. "In the past, when we've been successful, we've been able to limit teams to field goals. We just haven't been able to do that this year."
As of Friday, tailback Rudi Johnson is out for the New England game Monday night. The Bengals ruled him out on the official injury report. Johnson left the game in the second half Sunday at Seattle after rushing 17 times for nine yards.
A player ruled as out will not play, barring any significant, unforeseen change in his condition.
No. 2 tailback Kenny Watson, who had 60 rushing yards and a touchdown at Seattle, will get the start. The Bengals other tailback is DeDe Dorsey, who was signed Thursday and does not have an NFL rushing attempt.
The Bengals will try to move the ball on the NFL's top-rated overall defense. The Patriots also are ranked fifth against the run.
The Patriots are balanced offensively, as well, and wide receiver Randy Moss is getting a lot more attention this season with New England than he did last year in December when he visited Paul Brown Stadium as an Oakland Raider.
Moss has two receptions for 28 yards. He's almost assuredly to have more catches and yards Monday night.
"He can give you big-play potential on every play," Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph said.
Then there's fellow wide receiver Wes Welker, who had 141 all-purpose yards last week, and leading rusher Lawrence Maroney, who had 125 rushing yards last year against the Bengals. And quarterback Tom Brady, and the offensive line, and tight end Ben Watson, who has a touchdown in each of the first three games.
"He is in a system where they are utilizing his skills very well," Bengals safety Madieu Williams said, "but they want you to focus on Randy Moss, Randy Moss and Randy Moss. Then they've got other guys who will hurt you."
Moss had just 42 receptions -- a single-season career low -- last year with the Raiders in 13 games. He has 22 in three games this year.
"Sometimes it's a matter of a good environment," said linebacker Lemar Marshall, who faced Moss when Moss with was with Minnesota and Marshall with Washington.
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