As part of the NFL's rotating schedule, the Patriots play one NFC division and one other AFC division each season. In 2013, that division will be the AFC North, a division that features a pair of teams they have become familiar with in the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.
But the first AFC North foe they'll face will be the Cincinnati Bengals, who they'll travel to play for a Sunday afternoon showdown on Oct. 6.
The Bengals have turned franchise fortunes around in recent years, making the playoffs in consecutive seasons and boasting a roster chock full of young talent on both sides of the football. The team has benefited from dependable draft classes in recent seasons and a trade that netted them a pair of draft picks for the nearly-retired Carson Palmer, who is now the likely starter for the Cardinals.
The defense is among the best in football and is extremely well-coached by coordinator Mike Zimmer, one of the respected defensive minds around the league. Zimmer's defenses are aggressive, physical and pressure-oriented, and this group features talent on all three levels.
Let's dig deeper into a challenge the Patriots will have to face on both sides of the football from the upstart Bengals.
Offense: Perhaps following the model instituted by the Patriots, several NFL teams have invested in a pair of tight ends to serve as focal points of their offense. For the second time in four years, the Bengals drafted a tight end in the first round, making Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert their top pick this year to pair with Jermaine Gresham. The clear-cut standard for tight end duos in the NFL remains Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but Gresham and Eifert are an intriguing set. Gresham has been to the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons and is a solid middle-of-the-field target. He's not as athletic as Gronkowski or Hernandez, but he's a useful red-zone player who quarterback Andy Dalton has grown to rely on. Eifert, meanwhile, will have to prove himself in the NFL after a decorated college career, but it's not hard to see why the Bengals were enamored with his college game tape. He has an outstanding catch frame and soft hands, is a dynamic receiver, and should be a favorite of Dalton's in the red zone. The Patriots' secondary will have its hands full if Eifert's transition to the pro level is a smooth one.
Defense: When we think of elite pass rushers, they typically come in the form of a dominant outside linebacker or defensive end. Clay Matthews, DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller and Aldon Smith are just a few of the game's best, and most of their work comes off the edge of a defensive front. The Bengals have a pair of gifted edge rushers in Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, but the player who opposing offenses fear most is defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who racked up 12.5 sacks during a simply dominant 2012 season. Atkins is quick, powerful and relentless as a rusher, and the Bengals' defensive line is a 60-minute nightmare for an offensive line as a group. Similar to how the Patriots had to game-plan for pressure from all angles against the blitz-heavy Texans (who featured a dominant interior rusher of their own in J.J. Watt), finding a way to contain the Bengals' pass rush will be a primary consideration entering this Week 5 matchup.