It was worse than anyone could have imagined. Never mind the valiant fourth-quarter comeback attempt made possible by ridiculous late-game play calling by the Bengals. Moral victories are for overmatched college teams. They don't exist at this level.
The Patriots pass protection remains a figment of one's imagination and until it improves, the Patriots can't and won't win football games.
The short, high-percentage passes designed to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands are well intentioned, but when the opposing defense is sitting on those short routes, they become useless. When the running game is only make pretend, the offense is a non-factor.
When you go into a game knowing you can't throw the ball downfield without getting the passer beheaded, and then you barely try, you not only become useless, but predictable as well. Then a failure to pick up a third-and-a-foot is deplorable. The offense didn't make a first down in the third quarter. Then in the fourth quarter with the team somehow still in the game down by six, quarterback Drew Bledsoe audibles to a keeper on fourth-and-two only to be stopped a millimeter shy. To be fair, if he makes it, it's a good decision, but if you are going to take that risk, why not do it on third-and-two as it was the play before?
"That's the quarterback's call," center Damien Woody said. "It was supposed to be a pass, but he saw something and checked off to it."
Then with one last gasp, if there was any oxygen available for the hyperventilating offense, the final play call on a fourth-and-18 has the quarterback roll to his left against his body to take away half the field. On that half there is only one receiver to throw to and he is covered. Ball game. The conversion is a long shot anyway, but that play call has to be considered low percentage at best.
Of course, all of the offensive woes are magnified when a defense (with an improved secondary?) that is supposed to be the strength of the team plays like it did against the (high-powered?) Bengals.
Coming in, the Patriots obviously knew a steady diet of Corey Dillon was forthcoming, but Jon Kitna (18-of-27 for 208 yards and a touchdown) looked like a world-beater with time to throw (a novel concept) and receivers who were open for big plays.
After punting on their first possession, the Bengals didn't call on punter Nick Harris again until the 10:00 mark of the fourth quarter and didn't have a three-and-out until the final four minutes of the game — at a critical time mind you, but still not one until that point.
"When you can run the ball like that, it's going to be tough to stop them," cornerback Ty Law said. "We did not tackle well today. We tackled like [crap]."
The Bengals flipped the field all day long and made the Patriots defenders look slow and befuddled. If Dillon wasn't carving up the defense like a Thanksgiving turkey, receivers Peter Warrick and Darnay Scott were dicing it. On one drive, the defense allowed back-to-back 19-yard completions. Then the special teams chipped in, allowing a 64-yard kickoff return that set up a field goal. A 40-yard Dillon run flipped the field on Cincy's next possession, which ended in a touchdown. Want more?
On the Bengals next drive, it was a 34-yard pass from the "All-Pro" Kitna to Darnay Scott. Then it was 24-yarder to Scott. If that wasn't enough, there was an 18-yard Dillon run that preceded a 25-yard touchdown pass from the "Hall-of-Fame" Kitna to tight end Tony McGee. The Patriots had no answers in a third quarter that saw them outscored 13-0 in a game reminiscent of the ugly loss in Chicago last year.
"We let him get off," linebacker Bryan Cox said in reference to Dillon's 104 rushing yards. "That's the story line."
The story line was that the defense hardly made the Bengals work, surrendering big plays all day. That was what didn't happen throughout 2000. When the offense struggled last year, the defense managed to make enough stops, while doing a respectable job against the run, to keep the team competitive. That wasn't the case Sunday, and if the defense plays that way in the weeks to come, Belichick may be well served to put Bledsoe in the shotgun and let him chuck it 70 times. Never mind the conservatism that comes with a draw play on third-and-11 from the Bengals 22 — a call that signals either fear of disaster or a defeatist attitude. Why not throw, try to convert the third down and then go from there. A draw play reeks of a "we'll settle for the field goal" attitude. That's fine if you have the Ravens defense, which Belichick does not have the luxury of calling plays for. Make sure your quarterback knows to throw it away quickly if the play isn't there, but at least try to convert the first down.
The sky is not falling because the Patriots lost on the road to the Bengals. But the performance was unsettling. Whether it was poor execution, a poor game plan or poor play calling, it was a poor overall effort in a game that gave the Patriots a chance to get out of the gate quickly. The Bengals were the better team and it wasn't even close. That's what hurts most. It wasn't even close.
"We had a great week of practice," Law said, "but we didn't take it to the game. We didn't play Patriots football."
No they played what could typically be termed as Bengals football."