As New England heads into a potential AFC Playoff preview, here's a look at the top individual matchups to keep an eye on as the Patriots link up with the Bengals.
Aqib Talib vs. AJ Green
This is going to be a good one. Talib and Green lock horns in what should be one of the more notable cornerback and receiver battles early on in 2013. This will be the third week in a row that Talib draws one of the top wide outs in the game following his Week 4 matchup with Julio Jones and Week 3 showdown with Vincent Jackson. Things won’t get any easier for Talib in Week 6, when the Patriots host Marques Colston and the Saints, but Talib appears primed for the challenge in 2013. Talib has faired well in each matchup up to this point, failing to allow the opposing teams top receiving threat to be the reason for victory. This week Talib will look to get physical early with Green, who’s game is based more around finesse than size or brute strength. Look for Talib to get right up on the line of scrimmage with Green in order to disrupt his routes early and get his hands on him as much as possible before allowing Green down field. Green will never be completely shut down, but he does have trouble with the more physical corners in the league. Corners like Joe Haden are notorious for giving Green headache with his physical style of play. If Talib can get to Green early, he may be able to yield similar results, forcing Andy Dalton to look elsewhere for production.
Logan Mankins vs. Geno Atkins
A matchup like this one is what makes it so much fun watching the battles in the trenches. Both Mankins and Atkins are the gold standard at their position along with the emotional leaders of their respective units. Each plays with an absolute mean streak and neither is known to back down to any challenge. Atkins has gotten himself of to a relatively slow start in 2013, following the signing of his five-year $55 million dollar extension. The two-time All-Pro will no doubt be looking to turn his season around as he matches up with one of the best in the game in Mankins. This is the type of week that Bill Belichick baits a guy like Logan Mankins with one-liners about Atkins superior ability and endless motor. Belichick has likely been playing tape on loop all week long of Atkins blowing up opposing lineman in order to get under Mankins skin. The Patriots Head Coach is notorious for laying down a gauntlet in such a manor for his best and brightest players. Look for this matchup to be downright violent between two of the most physical and toughest players in the NFL.
Jerod Mayo vs. Giovani Bernard
It’s no revelation that New England struggles mightily with covering backs and tight ends across the middle. Unfortunately for the Patriots, this has been an issue for quite some time now. The Falcons, for all intents and purposes, totally owned the middle of the field on Sunday Night football last week against the Patriots. Tight end, Tony Gonzalez, was able to get the mismatches he and Matt Ryan were after. Ryan and Gonzo set up the Patriots linebackers for failure with rub routes and timing plays all night long. This week against the Bengals, the threat across the middle comes in the form of rookie running back, Giovani Bernard. The rookie out of North Carolina hauled in 92 catches for 852 yards in only two seasons as a Tar Heel. Bernard acts as the Bengals change of pace back, but as the season rolls on will likely dethrone former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the Bengals feature back. It’s likely Bernard sees a combination of Patriots defenders drawing him in coverage on Sunday, but look for Jerod Mayo to be the mainstay. Coming out of training camp, it was said that Mayo had trimmed down in order to improve his foot speed and become better in pass coverage. Up to this point, it’s been hard to notice, but he has the chance to redeem himself this week against the Bengals. Much like Aqib Talib’s matchup with AJ Green, Mayo’s chances with Bernard could be greatly improved by being physical at the point of attack. Bernard is a smaller running back and Mayo can certainly lay the hammer, so look for the Patriots linebacker to do just that whenever he gets the chance Sunday afternoon.
Chandler Jones vs. Andrew Whitworth
With Vince Wilfork out for the season Chandler Jones has no choice but to step his game up. Wilfork was never the pass rushing type, but the pressure he provided up the middle usually drew a double team in turn creating one-on-one matchups for the New England defensive ends. Now that opponents won’t need to account for Wilfork in the middle, they’ll likely shift their focus outside and onto the Patriots two defensive ends. The Falcons took this approach last week with New England and managed to prevent any semblance of a Patriots pass rush in the process. This week, Jones will draw Pro Bowl left tackle, Andrew Whitworth. Whitworth is a man amongst boys at 6’7” and 330 pounds. Jones will be giving up size in Week 5, but has the chance to gain the advantage through his speed and leverage against the less athletic Whitworth. If Jones can’t win his one-on-one matchups in 2013, this Patriots defensive line is in serious trouble. Last week was a complete dud for Jones, so he needs to prove he’s ready to kick it up a notch this week against one of the more elite left tackles in football.
Rob Ninkovich vs. Andre Smith
Copy and paste above for Rob Ninkovich. He was a ghost in Week 4 and the Patriots simply cannot afford a repeat performance out of him in Week 5. Ninkovich will likely line up more often than not across from right tackle, Andre Smith. The former Alabama Crimson Tide is a bit of a load at 6’4” and 335 pounds. Ninkovich will be totally outmatched in stature, but he may be able to use that to his advantage. Smith struggles with smaller and more athletic ends, and Ninkovich will no doubt have to play to his strengths in order to win the battle with Smith. Ninkovich is no slouch in the trenches, but his game is more predicated on speed and athleticism. Cincinatti will undoubtedly be more focused on Jones and Ninkovich than any player in the middle for New England. The Bengals offensive line was one of the worst in the NFL in 2012, allowing opponents to get licks on Andy Dalton nearly at will. It won’t be easy, but if the Patriots defensive ends can be active early, they have real chance of making it a long afternoon for Dalton. With all the focus on Ninkovich and Jones on the ends, look for a guy like Brandon Spikes to have a real effect in the middle. Spikes is the size of most defensive tackles, and there’s a real chance on Sunday that the Patriots deploy the plodder in more of a hybrid type role at the line of scrimmage. Look for Spikes to be lined up next to Jones or Ninkovich at any given point in the game acting as another down lineman in running situations.