December 4, 2016

Game Day Rear View

Patriots stun Bengals, me, 38-13
by Scott Benson

Mr. Halberstram……..it’s Bill Belichick on the line.

The Patriots today added another chapter to Belichick’s literary canon with a thoroughly shocking 38-13 upset of the undefeated Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

The Patriots defense, despite missing two starting defensive backs, held Chad Johnson to only 64 yards and allowed the Bengals offense just one touchdown. It was clearly their steady play that set up the surprising victory. Just one week after stumbling badly at home, they covered everybody and allowed only one play over 20 yards ( a 32 yard, 3rd quarter reception by TJ Houshmandzadeh that set up the Bengals only TD, which brought the game to one).

Later, after a season-best New England offensive drive gave the Pats a two-score lead with just 20 minutes to play, the defense came after Carson Palmer and pass rushed him into two consecutive fumbles (both deep in Bengals territory), just the 2nd and 3rd takeaways of the season for the Patriots. They produced a blow-out road win and knocked the high-flying Bengals (average margin of vistory – 12.66 points) from the ranks of the unbeaten.

But the defense was nearly upstaged by Laurence Maroney, Corey Dillon and the Patriots offense, which finally played a full four quarters, and just in time.

The Patriots went right at the Bengals weakness, their below-average run defense, and piled up 234 yards, their best rushing total in a decade (and a 5.8 yards per carry average). Maroney had scoring runs of 11 and 25 yards, and added a 41 yarder that set up a Stephen Gostkowski field goal that gave the Patriots that critical two-score lead that set in motion Cincinnati’s total unraveling.

Yes, you read that last part right – Gostkowski finally made one. It was indeed the Patriots Day.

New England withstood an early push by the Bengals offense to control the game. Cincinnati drove into Patriots territory on each of their first two possessions, but each time, the Patriots dropped a net on the Bengals receivers and forced them to settle instead for two Shayne Graham field goals.

It may have been the most critical interval of the game. The Bengals came out moving the ball for the entire first quarter but had only 6 points to show for it.

Initially, Tom Brady could not summon an offensive response. In a disturbing moment at the end of the 1st quarter, he badly missed an open Doug Gabriel on a 3rd and 9 play, not only losing the 1st down but causing Gabriel to leap and tip the ball, which was predictably intercepted by Cincy’s Tory James in Bengals territory. Once again, though, the defense stiffened, forcing the Bengals to a three and out and their first punt.

Brady slowly went to work, hitting his wide receivers on short, quick passes. With Troy Brown already into the game as a defensive back, receiver duties fell to Doug Gabriel and Reche Caldwell, and they both grabbed screen-style pegs from Brady to get the offense moving. Chad Jackson suddenly appeared with the ball on a reverse play and picked up a big 1st down. Finally, Brady was able to get over the top of the Bengals D when he hit Ben Watson with a 35 yard throw to the Cincy 11, which set up (on the next play) Maroney’s first touchdown, a dash around left end. The Patriots had driven 83 yards on 8 plays and taken the lead.

After an exchange of possessions (and more solid play by the Pats defense), Kevin Faulk returned a Bengals punt 43 yards and gave the Patriots the chance to extend their unexpected lead before halftime. The Bengals dug in at first, forcing a 3rd and 3, but Maroney again made the play with a 5 yard burst to the left. Three plays later, Brady seemed to make an adjustment at the line, and as a result, Doug Gabriel ran free near the Cincy goal line. He gathered Brady’s lob on the run, and the Patriots had a 14-6 halftime lead, and as importantly, real momentum, for maybe the first time all season.

It continued when the Patriots took the second half kickoff and marched to the Bengals 30 yard line. But that thud you heard was the rookie kicker missing his third consecutive field goal attempt, a 49 yarder that sailed badly to the right.

Naturally, that perked Palmer and the Bengals right up, and they rolled up the field in 7 plays to make the score 14-13. Palmer began to work the Patriots secondary over, hitting Houshmandzadeh for the big play then working closer to the goal line with Chad Johnson. It ended with a Rudi Johnson TD plunge, and a one-point game. Neither Mo, nor his brother Mentum, seemed to be on the Patriots side now.

But on New England’s next possession, Brady quickly hit Daniel Graham, moving the ball towards midfield. Two plays misfired and the Patriots suddenly faced a 3rd and 9, but Brady found Doug Gabriel (4 more catches for 50 yards and a TD) deep down the middle for the first down. Kevin Kaesviharn then speared Reche Caldwell as the receiver brought down (and dropped) a long Brady throw. The ringing hit (which kept Caldwell out of the game for only minutes) brought the ball to the Bengals 25 and set up the second Maroney touchdown sprint. This one combined power with speed, and the best moment came when the rookie stiff armed Madieu Williams to the ground as he neared the goal line.

Brady wasn’t finished, and at this point, the Patriots offense really hit its stride. Brady led the Pats on a 88 yard drive, setting up Gostkowski’s 24 yard (yet not insignificant) chip. The backs led the way (led by Dillon on the ground – he finished with nearly 70 yards) and once again Maroney starred, both on a 15 yard catch and run, and on his 41 yard sprint up the left sideline that was again a mix of power and speed. He finished with his first 100 yard game as a pro (15-125-2).

With the two-score lead in hand, the game went back – fittingly – to the Patriots defense. They ran away with it, and made it a blowout.

On two consecutive possessions, Patriots pass rushers (first Jarvis Green, then Ty Warren) slammed into a retreating Palmer, sending the ball flying, and the Patriots recovered both fumbles deep in Cincinnati territory. And both times the suddenly robust offense drove the ball in for scores (a run from Dillon and a wide open play action to Graham). It was the Patriots turn to enjoy Garbage Time. The 25 point lead even drove Palmer from the game.

Backup tackle Wesley Britt filled in for the missing Ryan O’ Callaghan, and the Patriots offensive line not only racked up a record day on the ground but kept Brady clean with no sacks allowed. The Patriots used 8 different receivers, and the wideouts combined for 8 catches. Brady hovered around a 50% completion rate in the early going, but he surely rebounded to hit some big throws.

The Patriots might have had a little trouble with Rudi Johnson (4 and 1/2 yards a carry) if the Bengals had shown any interest in running. As it was, they played right into the hands of New England, who despite a run of injuries, managed to stifle a damn good passing game on its home field. Asante Samuel, Chad Scott, Artrell Hawkins, Rodney Harrison (his helmet remained on, by the way) , Hank Poteat and even Troy Brown may deserve a game ball for keeping the game close early, and then locking it down late.

Gostkowski’s field goal struggles aside, I challenge you to name another Patriots kicker who ever put the ball into the end zone on every frigging kickoff.

The Patriots now sit at an unanticipated 3-1, with 1-3 Miami (losers to Houston today) headed to Foxboro next weekend.

Such a dramatic turnaround from the futility – and frustration – of just one week ago. Riddled by both injury and apparent doubt, they rose from their knees to confidently execute a complete win – on the road – against a previously-unbeaten playoff team. It felt like the stuff of literary legends.

Which reminds me. Mr. Halberstam, what should I tell Belichick? Does he have another chapter here?

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