CINCINNATI (AP) – Fresh off their victory over the defending Super Bowl champions, the unbeaten Cincinnati Bengals get to measure themselves against the team that has won more Lombardi trophies than any other this decade.

Not that the New England Patriots look the part these days.

The Patriots (2-1) have bigger problems as the opening month winds down. Losing Deion Branch and David Givens – their top receivers last season – has sapped the offense and left one of the NFL’s model franchises in an unaccustomed state.

A fourth of the way into the season, these New Englanders are missing something important.

“I think we have to continue to find our identity,” safety Rodney Harrison said. “Each year, the NFL is a revolving door and you’re going to lose guys. We lost some key guys and that affected us mentally.”

It hasn’t usually been that way.

The Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2001, 2003 and 2004 despite a lot of injuries and end-of-the-season roster turnover. New England showed a knack for finding players who fit their winning system.

They’d rather replace than overpay.

“I think their way of approaching the salary cap and team concept has been a great lesson for teams in the NFL,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “What they say is: ‘I realize you’re a fine, fine player, but this is where we’re going to go. You know we love you, but you’re going to play for somebody else. We’re going to unwrap the next guy.”‘

They’ve gotten a few surprises when they removed the wrapping paper.

The Patriots were shut out in the first three quarters of a 17-7 home loss to Denver last week. The offense was so ineffective that Tom Brady threw up his arms, an uncharacteristic show of frustration for the upbeat quarterback.

Maybe it was brought on by Brady’s history against the Broncos – he’s 1-5.

Or, maybe it was the realization this offense isn’t up to recent standards because Givens left as a free agent and Branch was traded after a long holdout.

“We just haven’t played as I would have liked,” said Brady, who has completed an uncharacteristically low 53 percent of his passes. “That’s all it comes down to.”

If they don’t get up to their standard fast, one of their impressive streaks could end Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

The Patriots haven’t lost back-to-back games in the regular season since December 2002, a streak of 52 games that is the third longest since the NFL and AFL merged in 1970.

To keep it going, they’ll have to beat a team that is just getting started.

The Bengals (3-0) are coming off one of their most uplifting wins. During their 14-year run without a winning record or playoff appearance, they were known as “The Bungles” because they always stumbled when things got tough.

Last Sunday, they overcame three turnovers and a fourth-quarter deficit in Pittsburgh for a 28-20 win over the defending Super Bowl champions, a victory that was as meaningful as any during Lewis’ four seasons.

“I think it’s showing the maturation of the football team,” right tackle Willie Anderson said.

“Good football teams have always been able to go on the road and not play what they were striving for, but still come out and win.”

Or, as running back Rudi Johnson put it: “Super Bowl champions. Say no more.”

That win took some of the luster off the Patriots’ visit, which marks running back Corey Dillon’s return to the stadium where he broke the NFL single-game rushing record in 2000 (Jamal Lewis later topped it).

In the past, this would be considered one of those measuring-up games. Not anymore.

“As much turnover as there is in this league, the measuring stick right now is the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Carson Palmer said. “There’s so much turnover and change from year to year that I think the defending Super Bowl champs are the measuring stick.”

A victory in Cincinnati would remind everyone that the Patriots are still a measure of excellence, with three straight AFC East titles to their credit and plenty of time left to figure out how to win another.

“There are no awards that get handed out after the third game of the season,” Brady said. “We’ve been in situations where we’ve been 5-5 after 10 games.

“We’re sitting at 2-1, leading the division, so I don’t think we should throw away the season quite yet.”

AP-ES-09-30-06 1244EDT


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