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Patriots fall in opener, 23-17

The New England offense stalled for too long to start the second half, and the Patriots fell 23-17 to Cincinnati in the season opener Sunday.

After a 39-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri put New England up 10-3, Jon Kitna led five consecutive scoring drives against a New England defense that was hurt by an ineffective Patriots offense. On the drive following the Vinatieri field goal, the Bengals' Corey Dillon could not be stopped. He ran five times for 50 yards, including both a 40-yard ramble and a 5-yard touchdown run. For the game he ran 24 times for 104 yards and the touchdown.

With the score tied 10-10 at halftime, Kitna opened the third quarter with a pair of drives resulting in Neil Rackers field goals. On the third possession of the half Kitna hit wide open tight end Tony McGee for a 25-yard touchdown pass to put the Patriots in a 23-10 hole.

New England's offense pulled a disappearing act in the third quarter. The first four drives of the third quarter went three-and-out, which no doubt contributed to tiring out the defense. It wasn't until midway through the fourth quarter that the offense woke up, thanks to an effective two-minute drill. Buried at his own 6-yard line, quarterback Drew Bledsoe engineered an 11-play, 94-yard drive to pull the team within six points.

The drive started quietly with a batted pass and a 3-yard run by J.R. Redmond. Bledsoe hit Troy Brown (7 catches for 108 yards, 1 touchdown) for 10 yards over the middle to convert the third down, and the two connected on the next play again over the middle for 39 yards to get to midfield. Next was a completion to tight end Jermaine Wiggins for 12 yards, followed by an 8-yard draw run by Redmond to the 30. After two straight incompletions, Bledsoe hit Brown for 12 and fullback Patrick Pass for 11 to give New England first-and-goal at the 8-yard line. Bledsoe capped the drive by hitting Wiggins over the middle, and Wiggins drove himself the final couple yards despite being blanketed by several receivers. The touchdown made it 23-17.

The defense got the ball back by forcing a Cincinnati punt after three plays, and the offense began moving the ball again. Starting from his own 30, Bledsoe hit Brown for 9 yards and David Patten for 12 on the first two plays to put the ball at the Bengals 49. An 8-yard pass to Redmond sandwiched between incompletions made it a crucial fourth-and-2. Bledsoe took the ball on a quarterback sneak and appeared to have the distance. However, the spot of ball placement left the Patriots inches from the first down and ended the drive.

"That was about the kind of game I was expecting coming in here," Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "Cincinnati is pretty good offensively and they have a real good running back and a pretty good group of receivers to complement him. They obviously gave us some trouble. We had trouble tackling Dillon.

"We had our chances there, and I thought we had them on the ropes. We just couldn't make enough plays to win in the fourth quarter. We need to be able to do that."

Bledsoe had a decent game despite the third quarter struggles. He completed 22-of-38 passes for 241 yards and two touchdown passes. He was sacked four times, but did not throw any interceptions. The one area that showed promise on offense was the red zone, where the Patriots converted both trips into touchdowns.

New England did score first in the game, turning a Kitna fumble into seven points. Kitna lost the handle of a pass late in the first quarter, and the Patriots recovered at their own 32. Bledsoe headed an 11-play, 68-yard drive that was capped with a 14-yard scoring strike to Brown.

NOTES

  • With his first punt of the game, a 45-yard boot, Lee Johnson became the NFL's all-time leader in punt yardage, passing the mark set by Rohn Stark. Later in the game Johnson also had the longest punt of his career with a 76-yarder, but it just crossed the goal lines for a touchback.
  • Grant Williams got the start at left tackle because Belichick did not want rookie Matt Light out there for the first time after a limited camp. Light did play late in the game and had to be helped off the field with an injury. The extent is not known.
  • Antowain Smith started at running back over Redmond, and Matt Stevens at free safety instead of Tebucky Jones.
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