FOXBOROUGH - When a team is 12-1, clinching a playoff berth and the AFC East title (after the Jets lost to the Steelers) in spite of allowing almost 500 yards of offense, what else can one do but project this type of performance down the road to more meaningful games?
What if the Patriots’ defense allows almost 500 yards to the Indianapolis Colts, or to Pittsburgh, in January? What if they play a team whose quarterback doesn’t throw an interception for a touchdown, as Carson Palmer did in a 35-28 Patriots win over Cincinnati yesterday at Gillette Stadium?
“The offense definitely bailed out the defense,” Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour said after the win.
On the day offensive coordinator Charlie Weis accepted the Notre Dame head coaching job, New England’s offense put up 28 points and certainly made Weis look good (an offense minus Notre Dame’s own David Givens, who sustained a leg injury Saturday).
Yet the defense did three very important things. Asante Samuel intercepted Palmer’s pass and ran it back 34 yards for a touchdown. Rodney Harrison hit Rudi Johnson and caused him to fumble on Cincinnati’s opening drive at the Patriots’ 12. And Troy Brown intercepted a Jon Kitna pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter.
“We just can’t let a team go up and down the field like that,” Harrison said. “We just weren’t able to stop them. We’re happy to get the win, don’t get me wrong. But we can and have to play a lot better than this. That was a very explosive team we faced. It’s not anything we didn’t anticipate, but we have to do a better job stopping them.”
Nor was it a great day for the Patriots’ special teams, which allowed a fake field goal for a score by punter Kyle Larson, who took the snap and rambled 11 yards for the Bengals’ third score with 3:10 left in the third quarter.
But, like in most games when the Patriots aren’t artistically strong, they wait for the other team to shoot itself in the foot. The Bengals had a very good chance of scoring on their opening possession. Palmer, who left the game late in the third quarter with a knee sprain, engineered an impressive drive before Johnson coughed up the ball on a good smack from Harrison, allowing Willie McGinest to recover.
The tone was set right there.
“You’ve got to get points there,” Palmer said. “Obviously points would have been big. We had two turnovers in the red zone and you just can’t do that against the Super Bowl champions. We left points out there, and that makes all the difference in a game like this.”
Tom Brady, who came out of a mini slump in his previous two games to complete 18 of 26 passes for 260 yards and two touchdowns (48 yards to David Patten and 17 to Christian Fauria) for a 127.1 quarterback rating, made the Bengals hurt a little bit more.
He directed a 13-play, 84-yard drive, making five first downs, three in a row to begin the drive. They came on pass plays of 23 yards to Deion Branch and 16 yards to Patten, and in between those Corey Dillon, facing his old teammates for the first time in the regular season, rumbled for 16 yards. Dillon carried 22 times on the day, gaining 88 yards.
The drive culminated with power football - Dillon getting a lead block from Mike Vrabel to get in from the 1-yard line with 5:08 remaining in the first quarter.
Instead of being ahead, the Bengals were forced to play from behind, though they appeared unbothered. They tied the score early in the second quarter when Palmer found tight end Matt Schobel in the end zone from 2 yards out.
Then came two scores in 12 seconds for the Patriots. Brady connected with Patten on the 48-yarder when Patten beat his defender and Brady laid it out there perfectly. On the Bengals’ first play after the kickoff, Palmer tried to throw a sideline pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but he didn’t put enough mustard on the ball and Samuel made the play and went in untouched.
“I just read the quarterback,” said Samuel. “It was a three-step drop. I read it, broke on it, and made the play.”
There was the chance for the Patriots’ defense to end this game early with its usual smothering ways, particularly against the run, but Johnson, who gained 89 yards on 24 carries, kept churning away. The Bengals pulled within one score when Palmer dumped a 5-yard pass over Randall Gay to Chad Johnson to cap a 69-yard drive with 2:31 left in the half.
That’s often too much time to leave on the clock when you’re playing the Patriots, who seem to enjoy scoring right before the half to give them an edge. Such was the case again yesterday.
Bethel Johnson made a 38-yard kick return to the Patriots’ 47, and Brady could smell an opportunity.
Two runs by Dillon accounted for 17 yards, and a Patten catch along the sideline for 20 yards set the stage for Kevin Faulk rambling in from the 4 with 22 seconds left on a nice block from guard Stephen Neal.
“I think he could have done it without me,” Neal said. “I get excited when I’m pulling and I see a guy I have to block with a number in the 20s.”
Brady felt that was a key touchdown because, “It is a big momentum swing. And to go 28-14 instead of 21-14 was critical, especially with an explosive offense like that.”
Brady led the Patriots 75 yards after the second-half kickoff, capping the drive by tossing it out there for Fauria to make the catch in the end zone from 17 yards out. The Patriots were in a double tight end set, and both Fauria and Jed Weaver were open, according to Brady.
“The throw was a little high and [Fauria] went up and got it,” said Brady. “It was a good play to start the third quarter, to go down and score. It puts a lot of pressure on that opposing offense.”
After the Bengals scored on the fake field goal, the Patriots couldn’t pull off a trick play on fourth and 1 at the Bengals’ 39 with 6:41 remaining. Larry Izzo was lined up as a blocker as punter Josh Miller moved out wide and Izzo went under center, took the direct snap, and was stuffed for no gain.
“I take full responsibility for it,” Izzo said. “I should have taken a delay [penalty]. That’s my bad.”
Kitna pulled the Bengals close with 3:50 to play with a 27-yard touchdown pass to Kelley Washington, who snared the ball over Earthwind Moreland.
All the Bengals needed to do was stop the Patriots when they gave them the ball back with 3:44 left. But eight plays later, Brady was taking a knee for the final time, running out the clock. For all the talk about the Patriots’ defense, it was the Bengals who couldn’t make a big stop when it counted most.