FOXBOROUGH – There was a pent-up reservoir of emotions overflowing from the Gillette Stadium stands at the start of Sunday's game. And why not? It was a glorious autumn day in New England and Tom Brady was making his first regular season appearance at home this season.
That emotion didn't seem to translate immediately to the field, however. After having their way with the Browns defense a week earlier, Brady and his offensive mates had difficulty finding a rhythm in the first half against Cincinnati.
"It was a great crowd. We always get great crowds, and they were into it today," the QB acknowledged in his post-game remarks to the media. "I was glad we could do a lot better there in the second half and finish the game strong. We got off to a little bit of a slow start, but finished with 35 points so it was pretty good; against a good team."
Part of that slow start was due to the consistent pressure that the Bengals were able to bring to Brady through most of the first half. New England's offensive line, an underrated aspect of the win a week ago, struggled considerably to protect their homecoming king. Brady was sacked twice and three of his four first-half incompletions were intentional throw-aways to avoid being sacked. TB12 started to have that whole "Brady Face," body language thing going on early in the first half.
The Patriots defense tried to reenergize the stadium with a gutsy goal-line stand, but when Cincinnati got the ball back and drove for a touchdown, New England suddenly found itself trailing 7-3.
It took another long reception by veteran Chris Hogan, one of last week's big-play performers, to set up the go-ahead touchdown throw – Brady's first in Foxborough in 2016 – to RB James White at the end of the first half.
Aside from that goal-line stand, New England's defense also had trouble with Cincy's offense. Bengals QB Andy Dalton made plays running the ball himself and scrambling out of would-be sacks, several times, Dalton found his receivers wide open downfield.
"You guys know us: we just keep doing it and try to find what works," observed safety/co-captain Devin McCourty. "Once we found it, we got in a groove and played well."
"We had to do our job out there," defensive end Jabaal Sheard added. "They've got a good offense. They made a lot of plays. Just got to continue to fight."
Trailing 14-10 midway through the third quarter and having given the Bengals the ball, the defense needed to assert itself, and it did. LB/co-captain Dont'a Hightower's second caused safety in as many games seemed to give the Patriots that infusion of urgency that was heretofore lacking.
"It took a while, but we finally made a big play… That was the big play we needed to make," stated defensive end Chris Long. "We were kind of in a back-and-forth with them, and Hightower does what he does. He made a big play and really brought the energy. From that point, we started to string together more big plays. It helped turn the tide.
"Anytime you score on defense, it's big. High did a great job wrapping up [Dalton] and making the sack. It was a great time to do it."
"Oh, yeah, a momentum changer," was how cornerback Malcolm Butler described Hightower's play. "The offense capitalized off it, so, it gave us more confidence. Turned out pretty well."
All-Pro TE Rob Gronkowski finally came alive, connecting with Brady on a couple of long receptions and Gronk's first touchdown of 2016 before Brady again found White for a short touchdown pass. Gronk ended the day with his best-ever receiving yardage effort (162 on seven receptions). Several of his long catches also helped ignite the passions of the Patriots faithful.
The New England Patriots take on the Cincinnati Bengals in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, October 16, 2016.
"What's special about that is that we got the win, and that're more important for sure," Gronkowski emphasized. "It's cool that I got the career-high and everything, but most important to me is getting that win, and that was a great team win overall."
Credit to Cincinnati for making it a competitive game for the better part of three quarters. The Bengals were actually within a touchdown and a two-point conversion in the early fourth quarter before New England pulled away in the closest 35-17 game you'll ever see.
But this day was supposed to be a welcome home party for Brady, and eventually, that's what it turned out to be.
"You only have so much energy, and at some point you've got to cut it loose when the moment is right," Brady admitted. "It's certainly an emotional environment for football. There were a lot of people there when we ran out and they were there all game, so it was great. And it was great to win.
"This is my home now; this is where my family lives. It's a great place. I love being here and I love being quarterback of this team. Hopefully I can do it for a long time."