CINCINNATI — The Patriots’ last-gasp bid for an overtime-forcing touchdown against the Bengals Sunday with 26 seconds left ended with a short, wobbly pass attempt from Tom Brady for Aaron Dobson that was tipped up and then intercepted by Cincinnati cornerback Adam Jones a few yards from the goal line.
The play sealed a 13-6 win for Cincinnati and handed the Patriots their first loss of the season, a game that highlighted New England’s offensive deficiencies against one of the stronger defenses in the AFC.
“It wasn’t our best day of execution today,” Brady said. “We certainly let some opportunities get away in the first half. We had too many times where we had negative plays and it took us out of field position. I give them a lot of credit — they have a great defense that puts a lot of pressure on you in many areas. Our execution needed to be good today, and it wasn’t.”
The Patriots have struggled offensively much of the season, though they were able to put up 30 points on the road against Atlanta just a week earlier, giving the appearance they were on a positive track.
But in Cincinnati they were inconsistent, unable to sustain drives, and inept in many areas that led to “last time” stats — as in, the last time the Patriots were so poor on third down, the last time they scored so few points, etc.
The last time they had so few points was Dec. 10, 2006, when they were shut out in Miami, and the last time they were held without a touchdown was Week 2 in 2009, a 16-9 loss at the Jets.
Perhaps most glaringly, the Patriots were just 1 for 12 on third down, their one conversion coming early in the second quarter, on a drive that ended when they couldn’t convert another third-down try, with Brady throwing deep for Danny Amendola on third and 7 from the New England 43.
The last time the Patriots were so bad on third down was Nov. 30, 2008, when they were 1 for 13 in a 33-10 loss in Pittsburgh.
“The truth right now is that we are so inconsistent offensively,” guard Logan Mankins said.
Brady was 18 of 38 for 197 yards, the second time this season he’s had a completion percentage lower than 50. He was 5 for 9 on third down, and was sacked four times. The Bengals ended his streak of 52 games with a touchdown pass, two short of the NFL record.
New England had just 248 yards of total offense and got into the red zone just once, in the fourth quarter.
That particular drive was yet another missed opportunity and featured another mistake — almost a huge mistake. On second down, Brady hit Dobson with a short pass and the rookie had a great catch and run, and appeared headed for a touchdown.
But as he weaved around the middle of the field, trying to find the last hole he needed, he fumbled and fortunately recovered it. The play went for a 53-yard gain, but in the blink of an eye it went from a near-certain 6 points to near disaster.
“I was just trying to make the play. [Safety George Iloka] came from behind me and knocked the ball out. I just have to be better with ball security,” Dobson said.
The Patriots followed with a 16-yard pass to Amendola, who was playing for the first time since Week 1, that put them at the 1. But LeGarrette Blount was stuffed on first down, and then the Patriots tried the play anticipated since drafting tight end-turned-left tackle Nate Solder: They let the big man run into the end zone, and Brady looked his way, but it appeared Brady overthrew Solder.
On third down, Brady couldn’t connect with Julian Edelman, so New England had to settle for a chip-shot field goal from Stephen Gostkowski.
“We tried a goal-line run, they did a good job of stopping us. Then we tried a goal-line pass and they stopped that one,” Brady said. “It came down to third down and we were close. We just didn’t execute the way we needed to. That is the way these games are — they come down to a few plays.”
Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis was so pleased with the defensive effort that he gave coordinator Mike Zimmer a game ball, something he said he rarely does.
Mankins said the offense let the defense down with its poor play, and Brady agreed.
The Bengals had been a bit up and down on offense in their first four games, and were coming off a loss to the Browns in which they were only able to score 6 points. The week before, however, they’d scored 34 points in a win over the Packers.
Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton completed nearly three quarters of his passes (20 of 27 for 212 yards), but receiver A.J. Green was mostly kept in check, with five catches for 61 yards on eight targets.
The Bengals converted 40 percent of their third-down tries, but they were only in the red zone twice, with one touchdown. The other trip ended with a terrible decision by Dalton to force the ball to tight end Tyler Eifert, and Brandon Spikes stepped in front of him to make the interception.
“They have been playing great all year,” Brady said of the Patriots’ defense. “You can’t expect to kick two field goals and win many games in the NFL. We can do a better job than that and we are going to have to if we want to win these games.
“We had too many silly execution errors and mental mistakes today. It’s hard to drive the ball down the field if you keep making those mistakes.”
It’s never a good sign when your punter is the MVP of the game, but that was the case for the Patriots. Rookie Ryan Allen was called upon eight times, and he responded by pinning the Bengals inside their 20-yard line five times, including inside their 10 four times.
The undefeated Saints are headed to Gillette Stadium next Sunday, and Mankins expects the Patriots to do everything in their power to make things right.
“We’ll never give up,” he said. “The one thing we’ve done best since I’ve gotten here, when we play bad like we did tonight, when we let the other team off the hook, we come in the next week and we really get to work.”Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.