Foxborough, Mass. – The New England Patriots anticipated their defense would be tested by an explosive Cincinnati Bengals offense Sunday at Gillette Stadium. What they didn't know was to what extent.
The Cincinnati offense that scored 85 points the last two games and rallied from a 17-point deficit just last week certainly was on full display Sunday, but the Patriots forced three turnovers, including two in the red zone, to turn a disappointing defensive performance into a 35-28 win. Sometimes, you take what you can get.
]()The Bengals touched the Patriots for a season-high 478 total yards. They rolled up 26 first downs, the most given up since the season-opener against Indianapolis, and converted 9-of-13 (69 percent) third down attempts. They moved the ball behind the running of Rudi Johnson between the tackles, chewing up 150 total rushing yards. That was more than the totals of the last two weeks combined, and the most since Pittsburgh rushed for 221 yards on Oct. 31, which was the Patriots only loss of the season.
The Cincinnati game plan included moving the ball through the air as well. Carson Palmer – and later injury replacement Jon Kitna – completed 27-of-37 passes for 328 yards, the third-highest total against the Patriots this season. The talented trio of Bengals' receivers – Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Kelly Washington – had their way with the Patriots secondary, combining for 19 receptions, 260 yards and two touchdowns.
The difference Sunday would be turnovers. The Patriots forced three Cincinnati turnovers – a fumble and two interceptions, including one that led to a defensive touchdown - and committed none of their own. Two of the turnovers came in the red zone, helping negate the production of the Cincinnati offense by leaving at least 14 more points off the board.
"Like we expected, we got a very explosive game out of Cincinnati and it was one of those back-and-forth, up and down the field-type of games," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said to open his post-game press conference. "Fortunately, we were able to get some turnovers and make the most of our scoring opportunities. And that was probably the difference in the game. I certainly didn't think it was our best game."
What is becoming the trademark quality of the Patriots defense – making big plays and forcing key turnovers at critical times – proved to be the difference in what ended up being a seven-point margin of victory. There was a clear sense of displeasure in the tone and look of Belichick following the game. That sense carried over to several of the defensive players in the locker room.
]()"That's defiantly the feeling, especially defensively," safety Rodney Harrison said. "We made some plays that we normally wouldn't make, from a mistake standpoint. We just need to play better. We can't have teams take the ball up and down the field on us and really have their will with us. We can't do that. We're disappointed about our play."
But even for the opportunistic Patriots defense, what transpired Sunday served as a wake-up call.
"I think you can just say you need to play better," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "You have to go out there, and regardless of who you're going against, or what the call is, or who we have playing certain positions, you have to play better. Everybody, top to bottom. If you're out there, you're going to be held accountable for what you're doing. That's everybody. It's a good wake up call for us in December. We're usually playing our best football right now. We need to take a look at how we're doing."
The most ominous signs as to what kind of day it would be for the Patriots defense came minutes after Cincinnati won the coin flip, when they methodically worked the ball down the field on their opening drive. Palmer completed three straight passes to Houshmandzadeh, followed by an 18-yard run by Johnson. But on a first-and-10 from the New England 12-yard line, Johnson was slowed at the line of scrimmage and stripped of the ball by safety Rodney Harrison.
Instead of an opponent taking a lead for the first time in 18 games, the Patriots took the turnover and drove 84 yards to take a 7-0 lead on a 1-yard touchdown by Corey Dillon.
"That was huge, us being able to get that fumble," Harrison said. "Because they marched the ball up and down the field on us. It really changed the momentum. It really helped us out. Turnovers are always key. Normally, whoever gets the most turnovers wins the ball game. We understand that, and that's what we try to do."
After a 48-yard pass from Tom Brady to David Patten gave the Patriots a 14-7 second quarter lead, the defense contributed again. On Cincinnati's first play on the following possession, cornerback Asante Samuel stepped in front of a Palmer pass intended for Houshmandzadeh on the right sideline and returned it 34 yards for the touchdown. It was the third straight week and the fourth time this season the defense put points on the board.
The third turnover forced by the Patriots had an equally large impact. Trailing 35-21 early in the fourth quarter but looking to pull within one score, Kitna drove the Bengals to the New England 10-yard line. On third-and-10, Kitna threw an ill-advised pass into the end zone intended for Chad Johnson that was intercepted by Troy Brown. For the second time in the game, the Bengals gave the ball away inside the Patriots 12-yard line.
]()Call it great defense or simply opportunistic, but the Patriots have been making such plays all season.
"They go way back," Vrabel said about forcing turnovers in the red zone. "We've had a few of those. Starting with Indianapolis, all the way back. Those are big. You can't ever take anything for granted. When you get down there, and you need a stop or a turnover, somebody has been able to come up with them."
What transpired Sunday was both a case of an explosive Cincinnati offense making plays and a mediocre performance by the Patriots defense. The Bengals offense deserves some credit. The Patriots will be able to fully digest it when they review film this week, but they know it's not a trend that can continue if a playoff run is in the immediate future.
"I'll always put the pressure on us and say we shouldn't have given that up," Harrison said. "I'm going to give them credit, because they are very talented and you can't stop everyone. They're capable of making plays, which they did. But a lot of it, I put it on us. I put the onus on us. We just have to get better."