by Scott Benson
Score one for the Patriots defense.
Their offensive teammates have been the NFL’s big story over the first month, but last night, the Patriots defense led the way as New England ran their record to 4-0 with a 34-13 win over the Bengals in Cincinnati.
Carson Palmer and the Cincinnati offense were held to 280 total yards and only one touchdown, and the Patriots forced two turnovers, including Asante Samuel’s game changing interception as the first half closed.
With the Bengals driving to cut a 17-7 deficit to just three points before halftime, Samuel stepped in front of a Palmer misread at the Patriots goal line, preserving the two score lead and cutting off what turned out to be Cincinnati’s last real chance to be competitive on the night.
The Pats had just one sack, but they kept steady pressure throughout with a four man rush (led by Ty Warren), as the New England secondary blanketed all-world receiver Chad Johnson (the only man alive having a better year than Randy Moss), holding him to just 53 yards on 3 catches. Running mate TJ Houshmandzadeh had 100 yards and Cincinnati’s only touchdown, but it took him 10 catches (several in garbage time) to do it. When it mattered most, the Bengals vaunted passing game was held in check.
After some early success, backup running back Kenny Watson was eventually sat on by the New England front, who held the Bengals to just 15 rushing attempts. With nowhere to turn, Cincinnati did not convert a single third down opportunity, going 0-7.
Though they are one of the top statistical defenses in the league, most observers remained skeptical about a New England unit that had struggled in the red zone and had yielded a few extended drives under the cover of three blow out wins to start the season.
But last night the Patriots defense stepped forward against one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses and shut them down in their own ballpark.
But yeah, the offense wasn’t bad either.
Tom Brady and Randy Moss continued their blistering pace, as Moss piled up another 100 yard, two touchdown game. He was never more impressive than on his first touchdown, which capped off a seven-minute, 62 yd second quarter drive as the Pats nursed a precarious 10-7 lead.
The Bengals had just driven 65 yards in about two minutes to swing momentum to their side and bring them within three. Brady and the Pats took over again at their own 40, and a ball control drive featuring Sammy Morris brought the ball inside the Bengals 10. Yet Cincinnati stiffened, and Moss took cornerback Jonathan Joseph on a third down route into the end zone that left him well covered and pinned against the sideline to Brady’s left.
Brady threw it anyway, a bullet to Moss’s back shoulder, and the veteran muscled Joseph out of the way to gain possession and tap both feet before being driven out of the end zone. A sensational play by perhaps the most sensational Patriot ever, and New England had a two-score lead for the first time on the night.
Samuel’s interception followed, and the Patriots were in full control. Without Moss’s brilliance, they may have been turned away with only a field goal, and who knows what could have happened then.
Brady was tremendous again, in full command of the vast arsenal at his disposal. With the ESPN Monday Night Football crew fawning at his every move, the telecast eventually devolved into a full-on “Brady for MVP” rally, led by Tony Kornheiser, who is just plain awful.
Morris was fantastic in relief of Laurence Maroney, who missed the game with a groin injury. The Patriots came out with a spread pass-first offense, but when the Bengals suffered more injuries to their already decimated linebacker corps, the Pats went to Morris, who finished with 117 yards in 21 carries (and a third quarter touchdown). His bruising lean-forward style furthered battered the Bengals and allowed the Pats to control the game and stunt an early Cincinnati pass rush that had Brady moving around the pocket with urgency.
The Pats offensive line had another top performance, opening holes for Morris and the other running backs (173 yards rushing) while keeping the Bengals speed rushers at arm’s length from their quarterback.
Mike Vrabel caught his seventh career touchdown pass (on seven receptions) from a first quarter goal line set, leaving us to wonder: why the hell doesn’t anybody ever cover him in that situation?
That’s a question for another day. The answers came on the other side of the ball last night.