CINCINNATI -- Safety Rodney Harrison acknowledged it was an unknown.
In past years, these were the type of games the Patriots won. No matter that they were coming off a demoralizing home loss, were banged up in the defensive backfield, and were heading into a hostile environment against the undefeated Bengals.
But could they do it this year?
“I don’t know if it was doubt, or if it was just uncertainty,” Harrison said in an elated locker room following a resounding 38-13 victory. “Because when you have so much turnover in terms of guys, you just don’t know. You have to go out there and get some experience and see what the guys do. This is a big win for us, confidence-wise.”
The Patriots’ ground attack was immense, totaling 236 yards on 41 carries, the highest rushing total for the team since Dec. 26, 1993. Rookie Laurence Maroney led the charge with 125 yards on 15 carries and two touchdowns. Then there was fellow running back Corey Dillon, returning to the city in which he spent his first seven NFL seasons, totaling 67 yards on 17 carries and one score -- and then being rewarded with a game ball, which had players roaring in the locker room.
On the flip side, the Patriots’ defense -- playing without two starters in cornerback Ellis Hobbs and safety Eugene Wilson -- held the Bengals’ high-flying offense (ranked fourth in points scored entering the game) by coming through in key situations. The Bengals were 2 of 11 on third down, a defining stat in the game.
The Patriots fell behind, 6-0, early in the first quarter, took a 14-6 lead into halftime, then appeared to be in danger when rookie Stephen Gostkowski missed a 48-yard field goal early in the third quarter. The Bengals responded with a 62-yard touchdown drive to cut the lead to 14-13, but the Patriots scored the game’s final 24 points.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who often speaks about the goal of playing a complete game that combines offense, defense, and special teams, felt the victory was sweet because of the circumstances the team faced.
“We were banged up, we had kind of a tough week here,” he said. “They really battled through it and had a great week of practice and transferred it over to the field. It was a real good effort, I’m real proud of the way they played and worked.”
The coaching wasn’t too shabby, either.
Before the game, running back Heath Evans said a list of experts’ predictions was listed in the Patriots’ locker room, which helped stir the emotions of some players. All the picks were in the Bengals’ favor.
“We’re the Patriots, we love that stuff,” said Evans, who said the picks were written on a dry-erase board. “Across the board, it was Cincy, Cincy, Cincy, I think maybe eight or nine of them. After last week’s performance [in a 17-7 loss to the Broncos], they probably weren’t wrong for all picking them, but this team still has a lot of character. I think we showed that.”
Playing before a crowd of 66,035, the third largest in Bengals history, the Patriots opened the game on the ropes, with the Bengals going deep into New England territory on their first two drives. But both times Cincinnati (3-1) had to settle for field goals, with the Patriots -- who had recently signed Hank Poteat and receiver Troy Brown playing on defense -- stopping them on third down.
Then came the second quarter, a period in which the Bengals had outscored foes, 34-0, entering the contest. The Patriots turned the tables yesterday, with quarterback Tom Brady (15 of 26 for 188 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception) leading an eight-play, 83-yard touchdown drive early in the quarter, which culminated with a Maroney 11-yard run around left end with 8:38 until halftime.
A 35-yard hookup from Brady to tight end Benjamin Watson -- on the play before Maroney’s score -- was the big gainer of the drive, but it didn’t overshadow some impressive razzle-dazzle. On third and 6 from their 44, the Patriots called a direct snap to running back Kevin Faulk, who then handed to receiver Chad Jackson, who ran for 10 yards on a reverse to keep the drive alive. To sell the play, Brady faked as if the snap went over his head, then cleared a path for Jackson as a lead blocker.
The Patriots added to the lead with 1:54 until halftime, as Brady connected with receiver Doug Gabriel (4 catches, 57 yards) for a 25-yard touchdown in the left-hand corner of the end zone. The Bengals appeared to blow the coverage on the play. Faulk set up the score, which made it 14-6, with a 43-yard punt return.
The turning point of the second half came after Gostkowski’s missed field goal, and the Bengals’ ensuing score. The Patriots responded with a five-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a dazzling 25-yard run by Maroney that included a powerful stiff-arm.
“That was big, they had cut it to 14-13 and had the momentum back in their favor,” said Belichick, whose team later added touchdowns from Dillon (1-yard run) and Daniel Graham (3-yard reception), and a 24-yard field goal from Gostkowski.
At 3-1, the Patriots are in sole possession of first place in the AFC East. And while the team picked up a victory, it also gained something just as important: confidence.
“Everybody thought we were basically going to lay an egg or get trounced,” Harrison said. “We stepped up and played well. That’s Patriots football. That’s what we’re used to seeing.”