CINCINNATI — They're starting to catch on.
The Patriots' young receivers seem to be figuring out what Tom Brady needs them to do, helping rookie-reliant New England get through a tough stretch of injuries without a loss. They'll need them as much as ever on Sunday when the Patriots (4-0) try to remain perfect with more rookies taking over on defense.
The Bengals (2-2) won't have to contend with defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. That's likely to mean more playing time for rookies Joe Vellano (who wasn't drafted) and Chris Jones (who has been cut by two teams already).
Nothing new for the Patriots, who have shown a remarkable ability to replace stars with newcomers and keep winning.
How do they do it?
"That guy," Bengals cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones said. "Brady is one of the best and he's a competitor. He hates losing. And I'm talking about not games, I'm talking about plays. When you have a guy like that leading the group, it makes all the other guys play a whole lot better.
"Brady is unbelievable."
His cast is getting better — and healthier.
Former University of Cincinnati receiver Kenbrell Thompkins — an undrafted rookie who tried out for the Bengals — has emerged in the last two games, catching nine passes for 168 yards and three touchdowns. Rookie Aaron Dobson also assumed a big role with receiver Danny Amendola sidelined the last three games because of a groin injury.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski has missed all four games while recovering from offseason surgery on his back and forearm and reportedly did not travel to Cincinnati for Sunday's game.
The Patriots have dominated their recent games against the Bengals, taking advantage of every mistake. Brady is 4-0 career against Cincinnati, though this is the best of the Bengals defenses he has faced.
"This is going to be as tough a game as we've had all year," Brady said. "We'll see where we match up."
Five areas to watch as the Patriots try to remain unbeaten on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium:
THOMPKINS & COMPANY: The rookie had a break-out game during a 30-23 win at Atlanta, catching six passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. His most impressive play was a 49-yard catch, going up to snatch the ball away from a defender. That one caught Brady's attention.
"If your guy is always coming down with it, then you keep giving him opportunities," said Brady, who will be facing a depleted Bengals defense. "That's how trust works and you build that in practice, you build it in games and you just keep working on it."
WITHOUT WILFOLK: The middle of the Patriots defense is going to be awfully young on Sunday, providing the Bengals even more reason to run the ball. Coordinator Jay Gruden thinks they need to find an identity, saying the offense is a jack of all trades, master of none. They've been at their best when they've committed to grinding it out, which eventually opens things up for A.J. Green and the receivers.
"Do you want to run the football? Heck, yeah, we want to run the football," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We want to run it a lot."
BENNIE AND THE PATS: Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis spent his first four seasons in New England and estimates he stays in touch with 10-20 of his former Patriots teammates. Given New England's changes in the middle of the defensive line, Green-Ellis is likely to get plenty of chances on Sunday to brush shoulders with them.
BENGALS TEs: New England had trouble guarding Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who had 12 catches for 149 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Patriots put two defenders on him at the line for the final series. They won't be able to do that against the Bengals, who have two dangerous tight ends in Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.
PERFECT PATRIOTS: New England is trying to improve to 5-0 for the first time since 2007, when it won its first 18 games before losing the Super Bowl to the Giants. The Patriots have won their last four games against the Bengals and seven of their last eight. In his four games against Cincinnati, Brady has completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 937 yards with 10 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 114 passer rating.