The Patriots performed well on all fronts Sunday night, but turnovers on consecutive defensive series in the fourth quarter ultimately shut the door on the previously unbeaten Bengals.
Unable to get a points-resulting turnover through three weeks of regular season play, the Patriots only turnover entering Week 4 came at the end of the Jets game when Tedy Bruschi grabbed one tipped by Rodney Harrison.
With 14:02 left in the game, the Bengals were looking to put together a scoring drive when an opportunity finally arrived for the Pats D. Jarvis Green fought his way into the pocket from Palmer's right side, and reaching out, grabbed the former Heisman winner's cocked throwing arm for a strip-sack, seven yards into the Bengals pocket. Green recovered the ball 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage and Palmer walked off the field having given up his third fumble of the season.
The Patriots offense capitalized on the opportunity, giving the ball to Corey Dillon, who relished in a 1-yard touchdown a little more than the officials would have liked. Dillon drew a penalty for getting teammates like Benjamin Watson excited enough to share in his celebration. Team celebrations were banned by the NFL entering the '06 season, but Dillon was fired up in his old stadium and it showed. Intensity was not in short supply for the Patriots.
The penalty gave the Bengals a field position advantage on their next drive, but the Patriots defense wasn't finished. Two plays into the series, it was Ty Warren's turn. He caused and recovered another Palmer fumble, recording a seven yard sack to match fellow defensive lineman Green's.
When Cincinnati's offense took the field again, they were a broken group. Palmer gave up another two sacks in the series before leaving the field permanently. Backup Quincy Wilson quarterbacked the bruised Bengals in their final attempt at a drive.
"That was huge. If we get turnovers like that, it's going to be tough to stop us," said Tom Brady after the game. "If you get those few extra chances, the way we were running the ball, we just pounded the ball down in there. A couple pretty easy scoring opportunities on the short field. That was great. All the credit goes to that defense. They're working hard. People have been criticizing them and it was great to see them step up against a great offense, a great running back, great receivers, a good offensive line. They really played well today."
The running back tandem of Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon, held to only 34 yards last week, exploded in Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, together recording 192 yards on the ground for an offense that caught and ran for 424 total yards. The rookie Maroney showcased his stiff-arm open field running style on a number of long runs this week and broke free for a 25-yard touchdown. The play was momentus, coming immediately after Reche Caldwell took a bone jarring hit. The Patriots never looked back after the touchdown. Also in the third quarter, Maroney also had a career-high 41-yard gain. It was the longest run the Pats have had all season.
Asked what made the running game so effective, Bill Belichick responded, "Players. Blocking. They broke tackles. They ran hard. We had a lot of contributions from the tight ends and receivers, cracking on those defensive backs, as well as the guys that were blocking up front. The running game is a team game. It is not about one guy. You have to have a lot of blocks to run the ball successfully. Everyone contributed."
Maroney scored two touchdowns in addition to Dillon's one and looked sharp , but the duo had help on the ground from Heath Evans, Chad Jackson and Kevin Faulk as well. Even Brady, who could have boiled an egg in the amount of time the offensive line was giving him during much of the game, left the pocket for a career-high 22-yard run and a first down before tip-toeing out of bounds unscathed. Rudi Johnson couldn't compete, recording 65 yards on 14 carries for a Bengals running game that could only muster 71 yards against the Patriots rushing defense.
Seven receivers tallied catches from Brady in the thrashing, recording 188 yards and two touchdowns through the air. Benjamin Watson topped his (and the team's) season-high 34-yard reception with a 35-yarder in the game, and Daniel Graham tied Doug Gabriel at the top of the game's receptions charts with four. Gabriel emerged in this game, leading the team with 54 yards through the air.
The defensive secondary came up big Sunday as well, despite the inactivity of starters Eugene Wilson and Ellis Hobbs. Hank Poteat and Chad Scott filled in for Hobbs, and Artrell Hawkins covered for Wilson. Veteran wideout Troy Brown stepped in to play corner a bit as well.
"Troy has bailed us out so many times, it's just amazing," said Belichick after the game. "We had in a couple new coverages and tried to make some adjustments to deal with Cincinnati's passing game, which we know is outstanding, and Troy had to pick up some things that were new to him and he hadn't done before."
Not to say that the Patriots secondary was without errors, but they showed marked improvement in pass coverage against what could arguably be the most talented offense in the NFL. They didn't allow any of the big plays that have haunted them during the last two games, and held receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh andChad Johnson to 159 combined yards.
"They're competitive guys, so nothing surprises me with that group," said Brady of the secondary. "The way Chad Scott, he's been in the pros for a long time. He steps in there and plays hard.Troy Brown plays hard. Hank Poteat gets in there. Artrell [Hawkins] was a starting safety last year. Those guys are competitive and have a lot of pride in what they do."
The Patriots, as a whole, had a lot to be proud of on Sunday night. They'll get back to work Monday in preparation for the Miami Dolphins, who travel to New England next weekend.
Dillon moves up
Corey Dillon wasn't warmly received by his old team's crowd, drawing boos on a number of occasions during play and when he first took the field. The venerable veteran seemed enlivened by the negative energy being focused on him.
"You could see the excitement and energy in his preparation all week," Belichick said after the game. "He ran hard today. He broke some tackles. I think he played with a little something extra coming back here."
Dillon bettered his performances in the Patriots last two meetings by averaging 4 yards-per carry. The icing on the cake? Dillon knocked Ricky Watters into 16th place on the list of all-time rushers. Dillon took Watters' place at No. 15 with 10,665 career-rushing yards to Watters' 10,643.
Gostkowski gets worse before getting better
Entering Sunday's game, rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski was on a two-game streak of two missed field goal attempts. Both of them had been blocked. Gostkowski missed his third-straight attempt in the Patriots first drive of the third quarter. This one went wide to the right of the goalposts. The play was his first truly off-target kick and came on a 48-yard attempt. Gostkowski got another chance two series' later, splitting the uprights on a 24-yarder to end his streak of three consecutive missed field goals.
Patriots keep streak alive
The Patriots have not lost back-to-back games since December of 2002, marking their 53rd game without consecutive losses Sunday against the Bengals. They are now tied with the Broncos for the second most games without back-to-back losses. The Pats will need seven more games to tie the 49ers for their record of 60.