CINCINNATI - In a rather still postgame locker room, Patriots defensive lineman Bobby Hamilton let out an agonizing scream as he sat in the chair near his locker, sending vibrations through the concrete walls.
It was the only “quote” needed after New England’s 23-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals yesterday in the season opener before 51,521 at Paul Brown Stadium on a hot, humid day.
Frustration was dripping like sweat from one corner of the spacious visiting locker room to the other.
The game was an exercise in what-ifs for the Patriots. Would they have won if they stopped Corey Dillon (24 carries for 104 yards)? If they hadn’t allowed so many big plays (a 40-yard run by Dillon and a 25-yard touchdown by tight end Tony McGee the biggest)? If they had taken advantage of what was often head-scratching play-calling by Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Bratkowski? If a few close calls went their way? If they hadn’t been a no-show in the third quarter? If Drew Bledsoe had made a fourth-and-2 with a quarterback sneak in the fourth quarter?
If they had done at least some of those things, they would have been 1-0 as they headed to Charlotte for a game against the Carolina Panthers, who defeated the Minnesota Vikings, 24-13, yesterday. Instead, the beginning of their schedule, which had 2-0 written all over it, could end up the reverse.
“We came out weakly in the second half and we left our defense on the field way too long,” said Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown, who caught seven passes for 106 yards and a touchdown.
“We had a lot of time to get it done, and we couldn’t. There are going to be close calls, but it wasn’t the refs’ fault. We couldn’t get going in the third quarter. It’s our fault.”
“I had too many plays I wished I could have back,” said defensive cocaptain Bryan Cox, who started in place of Ted Johnson (hip flexor). “We showed resiliency by coming back, but I made a bonehead play letting the tight end free for a touchdown.”
The Bengals, who racked up 353 yards in total offense (157 on the ground), held only a 16-10 lead late in the third quarter when they began to gather steam.
The Bengals began a 70-yard march, with quarterback Jon Kitna, who had fumbled deep in Patriots territory in the first quarter, at one point looking down the middle of the field. There was McGee, wide open, and Kitna found him for the 25-yard score. That made it 23-10 and left Patriots defenders pointing fingers at one another on the field.
“I didn’t expect to be that wide open,” said McGee. “The ball was up there hanging in midair, and you have to make those plays.”
Cox, who has said he no longer is good in coverage, knew how bad it looked.
“I can do better,” he said. “I’m not offering any excuses. Losing any game hurts, but I was the invisible man in the first half. I can’t afford to be cautious. I have to look in the mirror and say that was not a good performance.”
The Patriots had a nine-play, zero first down third quarter, and a fourth consecutive three-and-out drive at the start of the fourth quarter, before the offense began its revival.
With 9:17 remaining, the Patriots began an 11-play, 94-yard drive, most of which was from the no-huddle.
Bledsoe began his best stretch of the game, dumping off to Brown for gains of 9, 31, and 12 yards, and to tight end Jermaine Wiggins for 12 more, before tossing an 8-yard touchdown pass to Wiggins to close the gap to 23-17.
Wiggins broke a couple of tackles and lunged into the end zone, but the play was challenged by the Bengals. The league’s replacement officials reviewed the play and upheld the call.
“I was definitely in the end zone,” said Wiggins, who is from East Boston. “I just needed to make a play right there by breaking tackles. I had the ball all the way. After that, we really had some momentum, but we didn’t capitalize on it. It’s nobody’s fault, but maybe we can correct some things and build on it.”
With a comfortable lead, the Bengals were still passing the ball rather than using Dillon to run out the clock.
The Bengals went three-and-out and gave the Patriots the ball back with 3:57 remaining at their 30.
The Patriots managed one first down, then got to the Cincinnati 41, setting up a fourth and 2. Bledsoe kept the ball on a sneak. The officials did not give him as generous a spot as they did when he ran for 8 yards in the first half, and he didn’t make it.
“It was my call,” said Bledsoe, who completed 22 of 38 passes for 241 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. “I thought I had put the ball out there enough to get the first down.”
Why didn’t the Patriots challenge the spot?
“There were so many bodies around, we didn’t want to use a timeout there to challenge, feeling we’d need the timeouts later,” said coach Bill Belichick.
The Bengals took over at the 40. They handed to Dillon on three plays, on which he lost 6 yards.
The Patriots had the ball with 1:54 to go, plenty of time to run the two-minute offense. But Bledsoe was sacked for a 7-yard loss by linebacker Takeo Spikes. Bledsoe actually had dumped a short pass to Brown, but officials ruled Bledsoe was in the grasp. On the next play, Bledsoe connected with Bert Emanuel for 15 yards, only to have the call challenged. The officials ruled that Emanuel trapped it.
On fourth and 17, Bledsoe rolled to his left, but Adrian Ross slammed Bledsoe to the ground as he tried to get rid of the ball.
The Patriots had scored first, on a 14-yard pass from Bledsoe to Brown. Adam Vinatieri nailed a 39-yard field goal with 6:08 remaining in the second quarter to put New England ahead, 10-3.
Dillon ripped off a 40-yard run to the Patriots’ 29, taking advantage of some poor tackling, then capped the drive with a 5-yard run, making it 10-10.
All week, when asked how he thought his team would perform, Belichick said, “We’ll find out by 4 p.m. on Sunday.”
The Hamilton scream said it all.