This wasn't what most people expected when the NFL schedule was released in the spring and read: "Sept. 9, New England at Cincinnati." The Bengals, after all, have been the laughing stock of the league for a decade, with a revolving door policy at quarterback and a list of first-round holdouts bigger than Gary Condit's hair.
But make no mistake about it — Cincinnati's 23-17 win over the Patriots was no upset. The Bengals manhandled New England for the better part of three quarters, and only because they are in fact the Bengals, kept the locals in the game. After playing to a 10-10 deadlock in the first half, one team came out of the locker room ready to play football in the third quarter, and it wasn't the Patriots.
"I don't think they did anything different [in the third quarter]," wide receiver Bert Emanuel said. "We were a little flat coming out of the locker room at the half and we lost some momentum and energy and you just can't do that, especially on the road."
Even against one of just a handful of NFL teams that won fewer games than the Patriots did a year ago. Cincinnati took control by scoring on all three of its third-quarter possessions (two field goals and a touchdown) and preventing the Patriots from earning a first down on any of their three. A 10-10 game quickly became 23-10, and the contest was all but over.
Corey Dillon and that storied NFL combination of Jon Kitna-to-Darnay Scott killed the Patriots in the third quarter. Scott caught passes of 34, 24 and 8 yards and Dillon ran roughshod over the New England defense in the period as two Neil Rackers field goals preceded a Kitna-to-Tony McGee touchdown pass to put Cincinnati in command.
But these were the Bengals and you don't become a laughing stock by playing smart football with the lead. Despite the presence of one the NFL's best running backs in Dillon, Head Coach Dick LeBeau decided to allow Kitna to try his luck through the air in the final quarter.
Even after the Patriots fashioned an improbable 94-yard drive with five minutes to go to cut the lead to six, LeBeau still refused to hand the ball to his meal ticket and watch the clock disintegrate.
The results almost proved fatal for Cincinnati. Facing a third-and-two from their own 37, rather than hand off to Dillon (who shredded the Patriots defense to the tune of 104 yards on 24 carries) LeBeau elected to have Kitna try a quick pass, which was knocked down at the line by Bobby Hamilton.
The Patriots then had their first of two chances to win the game. Drew Bledsoe (22-for-38, 241 yards, two touchdowns) hooked up with Troy Brown for 9 yards and David Patten for 12 more to put the ball at the Cincy 49. His next pass was dropped by a wide open Emanuel, but J.R. Redmond held onto Bledsoe's pass on the following play to set up a third-and-two from the 41.
After an incomplete pass, Bledsoe tried to catch the Bengals off guard with a quarterback sneak he called at the line of scrimmage. He plowed ahead and got close to the necessary yardage, but the spot left the Patriots less than an inch short.
"It was [my call]," Bledsoe said of the sneak. "I thought I made it and I thought I could pick up the yard, yard-and-half. It was extremely close and we didn't get the spot, but the bottom line is we simply have to make those plays and not leave it up to anyone's judgement."
Still the Patriots got another try. The defense, which forced the only two three-and-out series of the game on the Bengals final two possessions, held by bottling up Dillon on three straight plays and causing him to lose 6 yards.
The offense took over on its own 31 with 1:54 to go and one timeout. But the drive never materialized as a pair of questionable calls went against the Patriots. The first came on second-and-10 when Bledsoe seemingly avoided a sack by dumping a pass to Redmond for 8 yards. But replacement referee John Smith ruled Takeo Spikes had the Patriots quarterback in the grasp and blew the play dead for a 7-yard loss. The NFL did away with the in- the-grasp rule several years ago and Bledsoe released the ball well before he was knocked to the ground.
Making matters worse, rookie Matt Light was injured on the play, and because it took place in the final two minutes of the game, the Patriots were charged with their final timeout. But things would soon get worse. Bledsoe hit Emanuel for a 15-yard gain, which would have set up a makeable fourth-and-three, but the play was reviewed and overturned by instant replay. The pass was low and Emanuel scrambled to get his arms underneath it, but the call was reversed anyway.
"It was the same situation as the Tampa Bay game," Emanuel said in reference to his non-catch in the 1999 NFC Championship Game that led to a rule change. "I felt like I caught it. The rule is supposed to say that if you have control of the ball, even if it hits the ground, it's supposed to be a catch. The ball was a little short, so I came back and got my arms underneath it. To me, there was no doubt."
But the replay official thought differently and the Patriots then faced an almost impossible fourth-and-17 from their own 24 with 1:23 to go. The almost was eliminated from the previous sentence when the play inexplicably called for Bledsoe to roll to his left, limiting his options. He was pressured quickly and his desperation pass fell at Jermaine Wiggins' feet well short of the first down, ending the game.
"It was about the kind of game we expected," Bill Belichick said. "Cincinnati has a real good offense, a very good running back and some good receivers. We had trouble tackling Dillon at times. We had some chances, I thought we had them on the ropes, but we just couldn't make enough plays.
"We played poorly in the third quarter and that was the difference," he continued. "We gave up some big plays on defense and didn't move the ball on offense. They pretty much did what they do well."
Now the Patriots face another road test next week against another team many felt would be beatable. But the Carolina Panthers season-opening win at Minnesota opened a lot of eyes around the league and put added emphasis on the Week Two matchup.
"We need to come to play, and that means coming to play for four quarters," Hamilton said. "Today we played well at times, but that third quarter was about as bad as it gets. I'm not going to make excuses or take anything away from the Bengals, but we were just awful. We just have to stick together and work through this in practice this week and go down there and come back with a win."
After Sunday's game, that task seems much more daunting than it did a week ago.