It wasn't nearly as a pretty or easy as his prior week's work in Cleveland but Tom Brady returned to action at Gillette Stadium with a 35-17 victory over the Bengals (2-4) Sunday afternoon.
Things actually got off to a tough start as the Cincy pass rush got consistent early pressure to help build a 7-3 lead for the visitors late in the second quarter. New England's home fans even booed Brady's offense as they left the field for a second-quarter punt.
But the future Hall of Fame quarterback put together a classic drive late in the second quarter, going 75 yards in eight plays to a 15-yard touchdown James White touchdown pass for the 10-7 advantage at halftime.
While Brady had impressive numbers at the break with a 120.8 rating, the pressure stagnated an offense that converted just one of four times on third down. They did get a break on the touchdown drive with an illegal contact call on third-and-18 to keep the drive moving, but overall the offensive execution was subpar in the first 30 minutes.
The New England Patriots take on the Cincinnati Bengals in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, October 16, 2016.
"We got off to a little bit of a slow start, but we finished with 35 points against a good team," Brady said after praising the Gillette crowd that was excited about its quarterback's return to business at home.
Things improved in the second half with New England scoring on four of its five possessions, including three touchdowns to pull away in a game that was much closer and more of a struggle than the final score would indicate.
Brady cruised statistically for the second straight week, this time fighting through the pressure to keep the ball moving through the air.
"It's good to be 5-1. They made it challenging today. We're still trying to figure out who we are," Brady said, alluding to some in-game adjustments.
The team also converted on four of five trips into the red zone, something Bill Belichick brought up as a key in his postgame press conference.
"I thought we got a solid effort today. It wasn't perfect but they came ready to play. We made enough plays in all three phases to win," Belichick said. "Obviously there are a lot of things we can improve on.
"Good to get by Cincinnati with a win and we'll stay in that division next week."
Before moving on to next week's battle in Pittsburgh with a banged-up Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, here are some of the personnel highs and lows from Sunday's win over the Bengals.
Tom Brady –Despite dealing with early pressure, Brady was nearly flawless in his home debut. TB12 completed 29 of 35 passes for 376 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 140 passer rating. Brady was sacked three times and dealt with plenty of other pressure, but it never took him out of his game. Two games into his season, Brady is well on his way to trying to win an NFL MVP with just 12 games to do it in. Oh, by the way, he completed his 5,000th NFL pass along the way.
James White – New England's passing back continues to evolve and improve from the impact player he already was last season. White jumpstarted the Patriots offense in the second quarter with three catches on a drive to his own 15-yard touchdown reception. He added another score in the third quarter to help the Patriots take control of the game. Overall White finished the day with a game-high eight catches for 47 yards through the air. He wasn't quite as good on the ground with just 19 yards on seven attempts and had a hiccup in pass protection, but White was key in the win.
Dont'a Hightower –With Jonathan Freeny on IR and Jamie Collins inactive to a hip injury from practice, New England was a bit thin at linebacker against the Bengals but their captain stepped up in a big way. Hightower was all over the field, finishing with a game-high 13 tackles including 10 solo stops. He added 1.5 sacks, at least one tackle for a loss (the game stats seemed to not give him some he earned!) and a couple QB hits. His safety in the third quarter really changed the complexion of the game. He also showed a nice backside burst on tackles for a loss both early and late, showing his athleticism as he grows more healthy after the knee injury early in the year. Hightower was huge in the win helping hold Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill in check, including a fourth-down stop on the goal line. A great performance that was needed by New England's contract-year inside linebacker.
Rob Gronkowski – Coming off his breakout 100-yard game in Cleveland, Gronk did even more against the Bengals. He set a career high with 162 yards on seven receptions, including his first touchdown of the year. Gronkowski had the key play with a 32-yard catch on the opening field goal drive. He had another 38 yarder to set up a touchdown and a 29 yarder to set up another field goal. Brady and Gronkowski were the backbone of everything the Patriots accomplished on offense. The only downside was Gronkowski losing his cool a bit late in a chippy fourth quarter, earning a penalty.
Stephen Gostkowski – A week after missing his third field goal of the early season, Gostkowski missed a PAT against Cincy. It snapped his NFL record of 478 straight regular-season PATs. Gostkowski also missed a PAT in last year's AFC title game, which along with summer and early season struggles has some questioning the All-Pro kicker's current state. There is no doubt Gostkowski is in a slump and needs to straighten things out.
Barkevious Mingo – The former Brown has been making plays on special teams in recent weeks, but saw his most extensive action on defense on Sunday. On one key play, it went very badly as he got matched up on the sideline with Bernard and allowed a 32-yard long gain to the back on a double move. Mingo had some reps inside as a rusher and didn't find much success in that role either. But if he wants to see his role grow on defense he can't be a huge matchup liability when he does get on the field. He was far from the only guy in pass defense that struggled, though, as both the overall coverage and pass rush came up short against the Bengals.
Offensive line –After last season's AFC title loss in Denver, the offensive line was the major concern of the offseason. For the first time this year, that fear came to full fruition against the Bengals. Cincy got consistent pressure on Brady, finishing with three sacks and six QB hits. Pat Sims gave Shaq Mason problems, but was far from the only issue. David Andrews also had a scary early shotgun snap for the straight week. Dante Scarnecchia's crew has been better and needs to be again moving forward.
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