FOXBOROUGH — Perhaps a big part of the reason rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins has been able to string together consecutive strong games for the Patriots lies in his two-word answer when asked for his reaction to having them.
“Did I?” Thompkins said after Thursday’s full-pads practice.
Reminded that he scored the first two touchdowns of his NFL career two weeks ago in a home win over Tampa Bay, then added his first 100-yard receiving game and another touchdown in last Sunday night’s victory at Atlanta, Thompkins again wasn’t convinced.
“Did I?” he said again. “I mean, I didn’t know I had two good weeks. I’m just out there playing football, that’s pretty much it. Just out there trying to learn from the mistakes and not make the same ones twice.”
His teammates and coaches surely appreciate Thompkins’s approach of not being satisfied with success. Undrafted out of college, he has been one of the better stories for a 4-0 team making do without Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski, two pass-catchers who would likely be taking targets from Thompkins.
Given repeated chances (he has been targeted 39 times), Thompkins is justifying all the attention. There have been bumps on many would-be connections with Tom Brady: On 39 targets, Thompkins has 15 receptions, and his 257 yards work out to a team-best 17.1-yard average. Despite the failed connections, the Patriots keep looking his way.
“He’s done great since he got here,” said Brady. “That’s why he’s been out there so much, why he’s had so many opportunities, because he continues to do those things.
“That gains trust, certainly in me but also coach [Bill] Belichick, [offensive coordinator] Josh [McDaniels], the other players on the team. When the ball is going to a particular guy and good things are happening, you just want to keep giving him the ball.”
This weekend will bring Thompkins back to Cincinnati, where he played his last two college seasons with the Bearcats. Certainly a return to his college town will make his next NFL game special, right?
“No,” said Thompkins, staying in character. “I just want to play football, just want to go out there and execute the game plan, try to be on the same page as my team.”
On the day the Patriots officially placed Vince Wilfork on the injured reserve list, they also signed receiver Austin Collie and released tight end Zach Sudfeld.
Collie has played parts of four seasons in the NFL, all with Indianapolis. He has been signed to augment a receiving corps that’s hurting. Of the six receivers on the roster prior to Collie’s signing, four were on the injury report: Amendola has missed the last three games with a groin injury, Matthew Slater the last two with a broken wrist. Thompkins (shoulder) and Aaron Dobson (neck) have been limited this week in practice.
Injuries have limited Collie’s availability, too. He suffered a series of concussions while with the Colts, then suffered a knee injury early in the 2012 season, when he appeared in just one game. He spent most of training camp this season with the 49ers, but was released in late August. He worked out for multiple teams over the summer, including the Patriots.
When healthy, Collie can be productive. He had seasons of eight and seven touchdowns with the Colts, catching between 54 and 60 passes in each of his three full seasons. He’ll wear No. 10 for the Patriots.
A turnover feast
With eight turnovers forced and four committed, the Patriots are plus-4 in turnover differential, which has them tied for seventh in the NFL. Not bad, but not as good as they’ve been.
Since 2003, the Patriots are a whopping plus-125 in turnover margin: 332 takeaways, 207 giveaways. To put that league-leading number in context, the next-best team over that span is Indianapolis, at plus-55.
“There are a lot of reasons they are successful,” said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. “But that one would have to stand out against just about anything.”
It’s a statistic that Lewis pays close attention to. Since taking over the Bengals in 2003 — Sunday’s game will pit the two head coaches in the NFL with the longest tenures with their current teams — Cincinnati is 51-13-1 in regular-season games in which it has a plus-margin in turnovers. With a negative differential under Lewis, the Bengals are 11-53.
“It makes a huge difference,” Lewis said. “You see it game after game in the NFL. You’ve got to possess the football. If you possess the football, good things can happen. If you turn the ball over to them, you’ve got a harder night.”
It’s rare for Brady to not convert a quarterback sneak on third and 1 or fourth and 1. Twice this season, against Buffalo and Atlanta, he fumbled on such a play. The Bills recovered the first Brady fumble near the goal line, and although the Falcons didn’t fall on the ball, it was a fourth-down play and Brady never reached the line, resulting in a turnover on downs.
“It’s an execution thing,” said Brady. “It’s something that we talk about. Those types of plays, you can’t ever really take those for granted. [I’m] trying to do a better job with that and hopefully it doesn’t happen.”
A quick learner
A.J. Green has gone over 1,000 receiving yards in both of his seasons with the Bengals, and is considered among the league’s elite receivers. Giovani Bernard is a rookie running back, but he might be the player the Patriots defense needs to be most mindful of, because his most obvious football trait is the one that can do the most damage.
“He’s fast,” Devin McCourty said. “You can tell, he kind of jumps off the table when he gets the ball in his hands, especially any type of quick throw or run. We’ve got to try to contain him. In space, he’s very tough to tackle. He’s made plays for them just with getting the ball in his hands. Sometimes it’s them throwing him a 2-yard pass, and letting him do the rest.”
Bernard is averaging 11 touches per game. He gets 4.6 yards per carry, and has added 12 catches for 122 more yards. He’s scored three touchdowns.
Other than removing Wilfork because he was placed on injured reserve, there were no changes to the Patriots’ injury report from Wednesday. There were 15 players limited. On the Bengals’ side, linebacker Vontaze Burfict (neck) was one of four players who did not participate, and another linebacker, James Harrison, was limited with a knee injury . . . The Patriots limited the Falcons to just one touchdown in six red-zone trips. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has a spotless red-zone statistic, at least in one category. He has never thrown an interception in the red zone, and has tossed 37 touchdown passes.