FOXBOROUGH - Fast start, stunning finish.
That’s one way to summarize the Patriots’ 38-24 season-opening win over the Bengals yesterday at Gillette Stadium.
The fast start came courtesy of the offense and the defense, as the Patriots scored 10 points in their first two possessions and held Cincinnati to just one first down on its first three possessions, forcing a turnover on the third.
New England was up by three touchdowns by halftime, a big enough cushion to withstand a second-half comeback by the Bengals.
But the stunning finish was thanks to one man: Receiver Randy Moss held a bizarre postgame news conference during which he claimed he wants to stay in New England past this year, but also announced his willingness to leave the organization, and said he doesn’t feel unappreciated but wishes he felt more appreciated.
Moss also deadpanned that he wasn’t trying to cause trouble.
The receiver’s rant aside, it was largely a day of positives for New England, which won its seventh straight regular-season opener and has been victorious in all nine home openers at Gillette Stadium.
“It was a fun day today, I’ll tell you that,” an upbeat quarterback Tom Brady said. “The celebration after the game is what it’s all about. We have a lot of new faces in here and we’ve been working pretty hard for the entire offseason. Coach [Bill Belichick] said a lot of really meaningful things last night and one of them was, `This is when we start keeping score. All the work we’ve put in, this is what it’s all about.’ We started really fast ... Everyone contributed.”
A quick glance at the stat sheet backed up Brady’s words and gave the sense the offense has gotten back to its heyday as a spread-the-ball system: Brady completed 25 of 35 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns, with seven receivers logging a catch.
Nobody had more than Wes Welker, however, proving that some things never change. Playing in the regular-season opener after tearing his ACL in the regular-season finale, Welker had eight catches for 64 yards and two touchdowns.
Brady’s first pass went to the All-Pro, drawing one of the loudest ovations of the afternoon. Four plays later, Welker was in the end zone, the beneficiary of having a wall of tight ends Alge Crumpler and Rob Gronkowski leading the way from 9 yards out.
Rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez set up the score with a 45-yard catch and run.
“I didn’t really expect to lead off the season scoring a touchdown on our first drive,” Welker said. “It’s kind of special with all the adversity and everything I’ve had to go through this offseason to get where I’m at. I’ll definitely put that ball in a special spot.”
With rookie Devin McCourty starting and lined up opposite Terrell Owens, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer picked on McCourty early, his first two passes going Owens’s way. McCourty got a hand on the first, breaking it up, but the second was a 14-yard pickup.
It was the only first down the Bengals would earn until midway through the second quarter; by that time, they were trailing, 17-0.
That hole got deeper. Cincinnati, the defending AFC North champion, finally began putting together a drive when Palmer’s pass for tight end Jermaine Gresham was intercepted by linebacker Gary Guyton. Guyton cut Gresham’s route, caught the ball in stride, and took off, needing only to beat Palmer for the first touchdown of his career.
“All I could think was, `Run, Gary, run. And get the touchdown,”’ Guyton said, smiling. “I was reading my responsibility, and once I looked back at the quarterback, the ball was in the air so I decided to make a play on it. I just put my arms out, squeezed that ball, and kept on running.”
The Bengals scored before the half on a 12-play drive that netted a 54-yard field goal from Mike Nugent, the longest in Gillette’s history.
“It took us too long to get going,” Palmer said. “They got going right away and we were playing catch-up midway through the first quarter. It’s tough to beat that team from behind. They are a very good team when they have the lead.”
New England grabbing a large lead quickly meant Cincinnati had to essentially abandon its ground game. Cedric Benson had 15 carries for just 43 yards; only five of those carries came after halftime.
The Bengals hurt themselves further by giving up a touchdown on the second-half’s opening kickoff. Brandon Tate took the ball on a hop, did a high step, and then turned on the jets for a 97-yard score that put New England ahead, 31-3.
That’s about the time the visitors woke up. Cincinnati got to the end zone on its next two drives, one covering 80 yards and the second 73, cutting its deficit in half entering the fourth quarter.
The progress came, perhaps not coincidentally, when Palmer turned his attention to Chad Ochocinco and away from Owens. Ochocinco had 10 second-half grabs for 129 yards and a score, most of those catches against corner Darius Butler. Ochocinco had a dozen catches on the afternoon.
“They did a good job with some things trying to confuse us with a lot of moving around and changing the pre-snap looks and post-snap look,” Palmer said. “Once we figured it out we were successful moving the ball.”
Yet just as it seemed Cincinnati was back in the game, New England effectively ended any chance the Bengals had with a 14-play, 81-yard TD drive at the start of the fourth that ate up nearly eight minutes. The Bengals did score again, but they lacked urgency in preserving every possible second of game clock.
A short time before Moss came into the team meeting room that serves as the site of game-day news conferences, a content Belichick lauded his team’s effort.
“That was a good start for us today. I’m really proud of the team,” he said. “We know that’s a big challenge for us next week [against the Jets], but we’re going to enjoy this one for a while.”
The win was one to savor, but Moss’s comments surely left a sour aftertaste.