The Bengals are trying hard not to become the Bungles again. The Patriots won't be doing them any favors.

The biggest question with Cincinnati over the past five seasons — "When will this team win in the playoffs?" — has been replaced by, "Will this team even make the playoffs?"

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At 2-3 and tied with two teams for the ninth-best record in the AFC, the Bengals have plenty of work to do in order to get yet another crack in January. After being ripped in Dallas in Week 6, 28-14, they get the misfortune of traveling to New England in Week 6, Tom Brady's first game in front of his home fans this season.

There was a lot of talk about soul searching and looking in the mirror from Bengals players after the loss to the Cowboys. The problem is the nature of an identity crisis is not knowing exactly how to solve it.

The Bengals aren't getting enough offense or defense. They scored more than 26 points a game on average last season — that's down to a little more than 18 this season. They gave up an average of 17.4 points last season — it's up to 22 this season. Not surprising, the biggest factor in that is what has happened for and against the run.

Cincinnati's rushing offense has fallen from No. 13 to a woeful No. 26. Its rushing defense has plummeted from No. 7 to No. 19. Also related: The red zone offense is No. 30, and the red zone defense ranks No. 25. Further related: The Bengals have stunk on both the offensive and defensive lines, regardless of run or pass.

It's obvious that, on offense, not having tight end Tyler Eifert has hurt twofold. They don't have his big body to help them finish near the goal line or his athletic receiving presence to complement A.J. Green, as Brandon LaFell and rookie Tyler Boyd aren't scaring defenses as new complementary wideouts. The Bengals also miss the inspired play-calling of Hue Jackson, as replacement Ken Zampese has been too predictable with his game plans.

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The defense looked a lot stronger with linebacker Vontaze Burfict back against the Dolphins, but that was ... well, the Dolphins. Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys put it right back in its place, as the front did nothing to disrupt the game. It has left coordinator Paul Guenther searching for creative schematic answers to make up for the disappointing personnel.

Now here come the Patriots, the NFL's premier team at altering its identity from week to week to take full advantage of opponents' weaknesses and take away their strengths. When Brady and Bill Belichick study film of the Bengals, they should see plenty to their liking.

Defensively, they'll blanket Green to make sure he doesn't beat them, and they won't worry about much else. Offensively, they'll stay a step ahead with their versatile personnel groupings.

When the Bengals went up to Foxborough in October two seasons ago, they were a much better-looking team at 3-0. They were still outcoached and outplayed in every way by the Patriots in a 43-17 loss.

New England's goal with Brady is to reduce the AFC title competition to as little as possible. At this point, only Pittsburgh and Denver have the potential to hang in that stratosphere.

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The Bengals are talented and experienced enough to overcome even 2-4 to get at least another wild-card berth. They are better than the 3-2 Bills whom they face later, and they have two games left against the 3-2 Ravens. They also have the fortune of two bingo free spaces against the Browns.

But don't confuse that with being a good contending team. With the way the conference is shaping up, everybody except the Patriots, Steelers and Broncos is battling to be the best of the worst.

With how well they've played since 2011, the Bengals should be more at the point of br

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eaking through for bigger things under Marvin Lewis. Instead, playing the Patriots will be a reminder that they've been pushed right back to postseason purgatory.