FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — It was 2020, the NFL draft was looming, and the world was on the brink of going into hibernation because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Joe Burrow was in Miami walking out of a steakhouse with then-Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia following a pre-draft dinner. He glanced up and saw someone else he recognized: Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
“I just went up and introduced myself,” Burrow recalled this week.
Was there any nervousness about meeting one of the NFL’s most revered coaches?
“I didn’t really think about it,” Burrow said. “I figured he knew who I was. I just went up and introduced myself. Nothing crazy.”
Two years later, the pair will meet under much different circumstances.
Burrow and the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals have a chance to close in on their second straight AFC North title when they visit a Patriots team that seems far removed from its most recent Super Bowl win, which came after the 2018 season.
Cincinnati (10-4) enters Saturday’s game on a six-game win streak and holding a one-game division lead over Baltimore. New England (7-7) has lost three of its last four games and entered the week one game outside the final AFC playoff spot.
The Bengals are also still competing for the conference’s top seed and a first-round playoff bye. But coach Zac Taylor said his team is focused on winning the AFC North and letting everything else take care of itself.
“The first step is always just getting the division and then if you can do that it allows you to see a bigger picture,” he said.
The Patriots have won three straight meetings with the Bengals and eight of the last 10. But a victory Saturday would be just the first hurdle for New England to clear if it wants to avoid missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
“You want to make the playoffs, you’ve got to beat three playoff teams,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said.
Beating Cincinnati won’t just require blocking out any mental hangover from last week’s last-second meltdown against Las Vegas.
With New England’s offense continuing to struggle to score touchdowns with second-year quarterback Mac Jones under center, it will also take a big performance from a defense that has five touchdowns, tied with Arizona for the most in the league.
“We’re back to work. That’s what the NFL is,” Patriots linebacker Matt Judon said.. “You’re going to have some heartbreaking games. … It’s always next week until it ain’t.”
Receiver Jakobi Meyers took responsibility for his mistake in the closing seconds of the Patriots’ loss to the Raiders last week when his lateral attempt to Mac Jones was grabbed by Chandler Jones, who ran for the winning touchdown.
Jones said Meyers hasn’t showed any signs the mishap has stayed with him this week.
“That’s what football is all about,” Jones said. “Sometimes when things don’t go your way, you just have to bounce back. I definitely look at him as a great leader on our team. So he’s setting a great example. Now we’re just getting ready for this big week. He’s done a good job.”
Meyers is New England’s top-performing receiver with 640 yards and three touchdowns this season.
The Bengals didn’t take any chances with the snowstorm forecasted to hit Ohio and surrounding states.
Though they kept all their physical practices in Cincinnati, the team arrived in New England on Thursday.
“I think this team has always done a good job of adjusting when need be,” Taylor said. “This is an unusual week anyway, six-day week. We’ve done it earlier this year for the Carolina game. Our guys responded well to it, I think it’s just one more adjustment they will have to make.”
The Bengals will be without at least one of their two premier pass rushers.
Defensive end Sam Hubbard was ruled out with a calf injury he suffered during last week’s win over Tampa Bay. He was seen after the Buccaneers game wearing a walking boot on his left ankle and may miss a couple of weeks. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson (wrist) was unavailable against Tampa Bay and began this week limited.
Cornerback depth has also taken a hit because of injuries. The Bengals’ best cornerback, Chidobe Awuzie, tore his ACL earlier in the season. Mike Hilton (knee) and Jalen Davis (thumb) were out last week. Rookie Cam Taylor-Britt, who started at cornerback against Tampa Bay, had to leave the game with a shoulder injury.
AP freelancer Laurel Pfahler contributed to this report.