With defensive secondary starters Eugene Wilson and Ellis Hobbs both inactive against one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL, this game looked decidedly in favor of the home team Bengals on paper.
Patriots fans, however, should never forget the ability of its team to overcome injuries and make the experts eat their words.
In one of the most impressive wins of the Belichick era, the Patriots neutered the Bengals high-flying offense and went on a scoring rampage of its own to the tune of a 38-13 win over the unbeaten Bengals.
Laurence Maroney had his first 100-yard game, rushing for 125 yards on 15 carries, finding the end zone twice. Corey Dillon chipped in another 67 yards and in all, the Patriots ground game accounted for 236 yards, the most since 1993 when New England tallied 250 yards in a game against the Colts in Foxboro Stadium, a 38-0 win.
The Patriots defense was immense, holding Carson Palmer to 245 yards passing and no touchdowns. The Bengals found nothing on the ground either with only 71 yards rushing.
Tom Brady was a pedestrian 15 of 26 for 188 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception but he made big plays when his team needed them, including a 21-yard run of his own for a first down when things were still close.
The New England defense opened the game with what looked like a moral victory of sorts. The Bengals first drive looked unstoppable until it got inside the Patriots 30. There, Chad Scott knocked down a ball intended for Chad Johnson and good coverage forced Palmer to throw incomplete on third down. Cincinnati settled for 40-yard field goal by Brad St. Louis to open the scoring. On the drive Palmer was 5 of 8 for 50 yards, hitting Johnson for 30 of them on three completes.
That moral victory turned out to be more of a foreshadowing of first half things to come.
After a New England punt on its first possession, the Bengals once again started downfield with ease. Palmer had three straight completes for big yards: 17 to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, 18 to Rudi Johnson on a little dump off and another 17 to Kelley Washington. But like their first drive, the Bengals came up short inside the 30 and took a 6-0 lead on a 45-yard field goal.
In his attempt to answer, Brady threw the game's only interception, throwing high and just behind Doug Gabriel on third and 9 from the Cincy 45. Gabriel reached for the ball and tipped it into the arms of Tory James. That play ended the first quarter.
There was no harm done as it turned out. The Bengals punted and Brady bounced right back. Starting at his own 17, he hit Gabriel for 7 yards and then Reche Caldwell for 14 on second and 13 two plays later. After Maroney ran for 4 yards on two carries, New England used some sleight of hand to convert a third and 6 from its 44. Dan Koppen direct snapped to Kevin Faulk who handed the ball to Chad Jackson coming around from the right side. Jackson carried for 10 yards and the first down. With the Bengals defense still shaking their heads, Brady then looked downfield to Ben Watson for 35 yards to the 11. From there, Maroney took it around left end for the touchdown and a 7-6 lead.
After the teams exchanged punts, Cincy came up short again and punted for the third time in the game. On this one, Faulk took the kick up the right side and nearly broke it all the way. Only a shoestring tackle tripped him up at the Bengals 42-yard line as he attempted to cut it back to the middle of the field.
Faulk's 43-yard return gave his offense first and 10 at the Bengals 42. With Maroney carrying the ball on this drive the Patriots were third and 5 at the 25 by the two-minute warning. On the next play, Gabriel broke down the left sideline, came free on a coverage mix-up and Brady had an easy touchdown pass that Grabriel grapped inside the 5 and trotted into the end zone with.
With just under two minutes left in the half and two timeouts, Palmer and his offense had plenty of time to bring his team closer. A close call on the right sideline ruled Chad Johnson unable to get both feet in bounds with possession of the ball on second and 10 from the 47. The fans reacted to the replay on the big screen, urging Marvin Lewis to throw his challenge flag but the play stood unchallenged. Two plays later the Bengals punted.
New England chose to kneel and end the half with its 14-6 lead.
The Patriots took the opening kickoff of the second half and had a chance to add to its lead. Brady ran for 21 yards on third and 13 from his own 33. On the next play, only the referee got in the way of Maroney but it was enough to slow him down and limit his run to 14 yards. The drive bogged down thereafter and Stephen Gostkowski's mini drought continued, missing a 48-yard attempt wide right.
The Bengals finally got in the end zone on the next series. The big play was a Houshmandzadeh 32-yard reception with Troy Brown -- filling in at cornerback -- in coverage. That brought the ball to the Patriots 26. Four plays later, Rudi Johnson ran it in from 2 yards out to make the score 14-13.
It was critical for New England to keep the scoring pace. Brady started his next drive with a 15-yard completion to Daniel Graham. On third and 9 two plays later, he held the ball for that extra second and allowed Gabriel to break free over the middle for a 19-yard catch. Next, Brady pumped once and then threw downfield to Caldwell. Caldwell had the ball for a second but was laid out by Kevin Kaesviharn for an imcomplete. It was a vicious helmet to helmet hit that the back judge caught. The penalty made it first and 10 at the 25 for New England. From there, Maroney got the call and stiff-armed his way into the end zone.
Rosevelt Colvin had a chance to break the game open when Palmer hit him in the gut on second down. Colvin had nothing but turf between him and a touchdown but he couldn't hold on.
The rest of his defensive mates did, however, forcing the Bengals to punt and down the ball on the New England 6.
The Patriots offense showed its muscle on the ensuing drive. Dillon played smashmouth, running the ball twice for 18 yards total to the 24. Brady passed to Maroney for 15 and then handed the ball to the rookie on the next play. Once again, Maroney found daylight around the left side and romped for 41 yards to the Bengals 20. An 11-yard pass to Graham gave his team first and goal at the 9.
The Bengals held on from there with good coverage after a 3-yard Dillon run and Gostkowski got a chance to get back in the swing of making field goals with a 24-yard attempt that he nailed with 14:45 left to play.
Next, it was the New England defense making a big play. On third and 7 from his 23, Palmer dropped back and was sacked and stripped by Jarvis Green. Green also came up with the loose ball completing the trifecta and New England's offense was back on the field, first and 10 at the Bengals 13.
Dillon ran twice for 12 yards to the 1 but was stopped on the next two plays for no gain. On third down, Brady couldn't connect with Dave Thomas creating a fourth down decision. New England went for the kill and Dillon once again. This time, the former Bengal punched it in for a 31-13 Patriots lead.
The defense did it again on the Bengals next possession. This time Ty Warren and Tedy Bruschi were credited for bringing down Palmer. Warren got his paw on the ball and fell on it in the pile at the Cincy 29-yard line.
Maroney went to work carrying for 9, 3 and exploding into a hole for another 12 to the 5. After a 2-yard Heath Evans carry, Graham was all alone in the left of the end zone where Brady found him for the 3-yard score and an insurmountable 38-13 lead.
Green picked up another two sacks with the Bengals forced exclusively to the air. When he wasn't being sacked, Palmer was being creamed as he passed and fans headed to their cars with the game nicely tucked away in the Patriots pocket.