CINCINNATI, Ohio – The streak is over.
No, not the New England Patriots' winning streak, of course. That is very much intact. But for the first time this season, the Patriots failed to score 38 points.
Their 34-point output on offense, however, was enough – much more than enough, actually – to subdue an already tame Cincinnati Bengals team Monday night.
Early on, the Bengals were able to get some pressure on QB Tom Brady, forcing him to rush his throws a few times. He eventually got his 200-plus yards and three touchdown passes (including one to LB Mike Vrabel with goal-to-go).
But while they put up most of their points by passing, they marched up and down the field in large part by running the ball at will.
Offense: No Maroney, no cry
Just prior to kickoff, RB Laurence Maroney, who made the trip to Cincinnati, was deactivated. That meant Sammy Morris would get the majority of the carries, and he did so admirably: 21 times for 117 yards and a touchdown.
Morris found plenty of running room thanks to another superb blocking effort by the offensive line. But just as much of a factor in the running game's success was the Bengals' lack of linebackers. Already thin at the position going into the game, Cincy's reserves began leaving the game early with injuries.
With no one big or strong enough to fill those holes, Morris and the Pats ball carriers pounded out yardage at more than 5 yards per clip.
"I love seeing our offensive line block like that," LB Tedy Bruschi raved afterwards in the Pats locker room.
"I think that's what they like to do most, is when they can get a drive going and knowing the ball's coming behind them. To see them play as a unit like that, successfully, to just run the ball down another team's throat, is very satisfying for me to watch."
Randy being Randy
Do we even need to list WR Randy Moss' numbers? You can probably guess them if you haven't seen them: 9 catches, 102 yards, 2 TDs.
The first score was a spectacular, one-handed grab – with a defender draped over his left shoulder. The second, a diving catch that sealed the victory late in the fourth quarter.
The TDs get all the attention, but what might go unnoticed is how his productivity is helping his fellow receivers get open. Defenses just can't cover Moss, Donté Stallworth, Wes Welker, Jabar Gaffney, Benjamin Watson … and the list goes on.
Moss' mere presence on the field is adding to this offense's invincibility – even when he's not catching passes.
Defense: Moving around, making plays
This week, we saw a lot more of Bruschi and a lot less of LB Rosey Colvin.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees employed Bruschi and LB Junior Seau together at inside linebacker, while LB Adalius Thomas – mostly playing inside so far this season – shifted to his more natural outside spot to try to pressure Bengals QB Carson Palmer.
It worked early on, and the Pats stuck to it for most of the game.
Facing a 3rd and 11 from their own 30 yard line on their first possession of the night, the Bengals dropped back to pass, but Thomas forced his way into the backfield to sack Palmer for an 8-yard loss.
"Every week, it's something new," Thomas observed as he prepared to board the bus for the return trip to New England.
"A wrinkle here, a wrinkle there. As you get used to the defense, you do more things, so we just adjusted."
The defensive secondary also pitched in with a pair of interceptions, one by CB Asante Samuel, the other by CB Randall Gay.
Samuel's pick came with under two minutes to play in the first half. With New England leading 17-7, the Bengals had driven down to the Patriots 20-yard line and appeared poised to narrow the gap to three points.
"That was really a momentum shift," Thomas said of Samuel's big play.
And while the Pats still gave up another touchdown in their own red zone, they did force Cincinnati to kick a pair of field goals.
As Bruschi noted, "To see improvement on that tonight was a goal achieved."
Bengals ran scared
With their starting running back, perennial thousand-yard rusher Rudi Johnson, sidelined with a hamstring injury, it was assumed that the Bengals would come out throwing.
Yeah … not quite.
Inexplicably, Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis appeared to want to set the tempo by keeping the ball on the ground against New England's stout run defense. And even when his team had success passing the ball, he too often abandoned it in favor of handing the ball off. Several Cincinnati drives stalled as a result.
Special Teams: Gostkowski is all good
K Stephen Gostkowski was a perfect 2-for-2 on field goal attempts Monday night, both in the 30-yard range. And his deep, high kickoffs helped the Patriots win the field-position battle.
Intangibles: A coaching mismatch
The Bengals looked sloppy and unenthused the entire game. Their 8 penalties for 65 yards are indicative of a team that is lacking focus. And for that, Lewis must assume some blame.
On the other side, Bill Belichick's Patriots looked sharp, prepared, and unsurprised by anything the Bengals showed them on either side of the ball. When they did face something new, New England made the right adjustments at the right times and made big plays just when they needed them most.
Cincinnati did not.