Monday, October 2, 2006

Patriots 38, Bengals 13 (10/1/2006)

They just don't lose two games in a row... they just don't. The Patriots vanquished the latest pretenders to the thrown, casting the Bengals out of the penthouse suite to sleep with the fishes after a 38-13 trouncing that left even big-mouth bass Chad Johnson speechless. Coupled with the Jets loss to Indy, the win propelled the Pats into the AFC East lead all alone, and re-cemented their status as one of the great bounceback teams in NFL history. They have now played 53 games without losing two in a row -- the second-longest post-merger streak in the league.

There were many keys to this game; but without the defense, it could have gotten out of hand before it really started. The Patriots offense struggled early on, and in the meantime, the Bengals drove down the field with seeming ease the entire first quarter. But when they got close, the Pats defense stiffened and held them to two field goals, making it a 6-0 game instead of a 10-0 or 14-0 game. The six-point deficit allowed the Patriots to hammer away with the running game, and that gave them control of the ball, the clock, and ultimate, the football game. 226 yards rushing was their highest total in over a decade, and it exposed Cincinnati's weak run defense like no other game has.

The Pats offense started and ended with rookie Laurence Maroney and the running game. Maroney ran for 125 yards on only 15 carries (a stellar 8.3 yards per rush), stiff-arming, plowing, and sprinting his way to two touchdowns. Corey Dillon contributed 67 tough yards and a touchdown of his own. Heck, Tom Brady even ran for a career high 22 yards on one of his carries. The blocking was superb, with Daniel Graham and Ben Watson sealing off defenders and the running backs hammering defensive backs trying to fill the holes. They even ran behind the rookie who replaced a rookie at right tackle (Wesley Britt, who replaced the injured Ryan O'Callaghan), with no drop-off in production.

The running game allowed the Pats to build advantages in time of possession (33:56 to 26:04), rushing yards (236 to 71), third-down conversions (6-13 to 2-11), total plays (67 to 56), and yards per play (6.3 to 5.0). And as is always the case, the good running game was the quarterback's best friend. Tom Brady posted season highs in completion percentage (57.7), and QB rating (89.9), and his only interception was on a tipped ball, and it led to zero Cincinnati points. The receivers also played better, making crisper cuts on the artificial turf and dropping very few catchable balls. Doug Gabriel seems to be developing some chemistry with Brady; and rookie Chad Jackson even contributed. Nothing spectactular; but who needed it with the defense playing so well and Maroney controlling the clock.

And oh that defense... what a performance it was. They kept switching things up on the Bengals, going from the 3-4, to the 4-3, to the 4-2-5, and even the 4-2-4-1 (that's four defensive linemen, two linebackers, four defensive backs, and one Troy Brown). The defensive backs jumped routes and jammed receivers to break down the timing of the passing game. And that gave the D-line and linebackers enough hesitation to sack Carson Palmer four times, and cause two Palmer fumbles, both recovered by the Patriots. Jarvis Green had three sacks and Ty Warren had the fourth, and each man recovered the fumble he caused. The D-line dominated at the point of attack, pushing the Bengals offensive line into their own backfield to stop the run and knifing through any cracks in the pass protection.

Overall, it was a brilliant game plan, designed to stop the big play and force the Bengals to work the ball down the field patiently (which they rarely did). Chad Scott played over and above what I thought his abilities were, and with five DBs, they had the Bengals panicking once they fell behind. Now, I'm the first to admit that the Patriots were aided and abetted by Cincinnati's poor play-calling. With the game still close in the third quarter, the Bengals gained eight yards on first down and then threw twice (both incomplete) on second- and third-and-two, before punting from the Patriots 43. That series was just fine with me, but I'm rooting for the other side.

And I give the Patriots offensive and defensive coaching staffs a lot of credit. They stayed with the run even when they fell behind early, and that decision allowed them to dominate the clock and keep the Bengal offense on the sideline. And once the Cincy offense did step on the field, there were a lot of covered receivers and a shell-shocked QB who didn't have a clue how to attack a defense he'd never seen and likely never will again. It's a Patriots trademark by now. Give them something they've never seen, and they will have to think instead of playing -- and that's when you have them right where you want them.

The local 11 also had a significant advantage in special teams play. Cincinnati's best field position to start a drive was their own 40 yard line. The Patriots started four drives with better field position (two on turnovers, two on kick returns). The Bengals had only 7 punt return yards, while the Patriots had 43. And rookie Stephen Gostkowski continues to pin 'em deep, with four touchbacks on kick-offs. However, I am concerned with the field goal kicking; Gostkowski missed another one this week, wide-right -- way-right, Mike Vanderjagt-right -- from 48 yards. That's no gimmie; but he needs to get his house in order or people will definitely start giving the team a hard time about letting Adam Vinatieri go.

So where does that leave us. Well, as noted earlier, the Pats lead the AFC East at 3-1, and at that rate, they'll end up 12-4 for the year and win the division easily. Their next opponent, the Miami Dolphins, was supposed to challenge them for the division crown; but at 1-3, the 'Phins look like no threat at all. They've got an immobile QB going against a Patriots defense ranked in the top 10 in sacks. Doesn't look good for Miami, especially playing in Foxoboro.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Pats should beat the reeling Dolphins at home next week. Then they've got a bye and two winnable road games (both Buffalo and Minnesota play on artificial turf, and Brady is 17-1 on that surface). That means they could enter the Indy game with a 6-1 record, and it could be one of those showdown games in Foxboro again. Man, I'm almost *glad* the Red Sox got eliminated... well, not really."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-1!

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