Breathe easier, Patriots fans. The panic level that was elevated across New England for the past week can be lowered.
The Patriots proved Sunday night they are not ready to be swept into realm of the NFL’s have-nots with a dominating win against the previously-unbeaten Cincinnati Bengals.
Tom Brady, playing like his job – or at least his reputation – depended on his performance, looked like his vintage self in the 43-17 win. Brady lit up the Bengals on the opening two drives and paced the Patriots to a 14-0 lead before the first quarter was over.
The win will soothe Patriots fans who had their worst fears rage after last Monday’s 41-14 loss in Kansas City, one of the worst of the Brady/Bill Belichick era. Brady’s heretofore season-long struggles, the ineffectiveness of the offensive line, the debate over how much talent surrounds Brady and even the downturn in the defense’s performance all coalesced to make Patriots fans and detractors alike wonder if this would be the year New England’s stranglehold on the AFC East comes undone.
Then early Sunday, ESPN reported that fissures in the trust between Brady and the Patriots coaching staff could lead to the quarterback’s eventual departure from New England.
But then the Bengals – and their defense that had surrendered a combined 33 points in their 3-0 start – came to town. And that, like it has been so many times in the Brady era, was good news for the Patriots.
“Winning cures all things,” Brady’s former understudy, Brian Hoyer, said Sunday. He was describing his Browns’ comeback win over Tennessee. But he might as well have been talking about the Patriots because the win over Cincinnati will wash away so much of the paranoia that pervaded New England the past week.
It wasn’t a perfect effort for the Patriots. For one thing, their 12 accepted penalties for 114 yards – which continued a season-long trend of a lack of discipline – jump out as glaring mistakes that still haven’t been corrected. And the offense struggled in the red zone at points - which is why Stephen Gostkowski had five field goals, including from 23, 24, 32 yards.
The Patriots also suffered notable injuries to safety Devin McCourty (rib) and rookie defensive lineman Dominique Easley (shoulder). Darrelle Revis also suffered a hamstring injury in the third quarter, though he returned in the fourth quarter. But in an ominous sign for how the Patriots might handle Bills receiver Sammy Watkins if Revis were forced to sit in Buffalo next week, his replacement, Logan Ryan, was beaten for a touchdown by A.J. Green on the first play after he exited. Revis described it as a “minor injury” after the game.
There was a lot to like, however. Among it:
■ Tight end Rob Gronkowski had his best game of the season as he rebounds from last year’s knee injury. He had a six catches for 100 yards and a touchdown.
■ The Patriots also returned to relying on two tight ends as pass catchers. Tim Wright, acquired in the trade with Tampa for Logan Mankins, caught five passes for 85 yards and a touchdown, his best performance with the Patriots.
■ The New England offense was nicely balanced, with Brady’s 292 yards passing meshing well with 221 yards rushing by a unit headed by Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. (Even Brady ran a couple times, showing an edge he lacked in Kansas City.)
■ Revis, before his injury, was very effective shutting down Cincinnati stud receiver A.J. Green. Green, who had a touchdown when matched with Logan Ryan after Revis was hurt, had just three catches before that. Revis also forced a fumble by Green that New England turned into a field goal just before halftime.
■ The Patriots’ much-maligned offensive line also performed much better than in recent weeks. Brady had more time, which in turn seemed to make him more confident. He was sacked just once. They also paved the way for a season-high rushing total of 221 yards.
■ New England forced three turnovers from Cincinnati, a week after losing the turnover battle 3-0 to the Chiefs. The Patriots kicked a field goal after each turnover.
The Patriots also delivered notice to the rest of the NFL that they intend to remain a big factor in the postseason race. The win tells the Bills, Jets, and others on the upcoming schedule that the Patriots squad that flopped against the Chiefs was merely a glimpse of them at their worst – and not a team that intends to be pushed around.
The game was billed as a proving ground for the Bengals, who stood as the NFL’s lone unbeaten team at the start of the night. Coming off three straight one-and-done playoff appearances, the Bengals were looking to pounce on a weakened Patriots squad and prove to the league they are serious Super Bowl contenders.
They failed miserably. Quarterback Andy Dalton, who critics say wilts when the lights are brightest, fell to 2-8 in nationally televised games (including playoffs).
What went wrong for the Bengals? For one thing, they simply failed to capitalize on opportunities. The Patriots, for example, practically gift-wrapped a drive for the Bengals in the first half when they committed five penalties totaling 54 yards over 16 plays. But the Bengals could manage only a field goal.
“I think we’re seeing a Bengals team that we usually see in the playoffs,” NBC analyst Tony Dungy said at halftime.
The Patriots have done this before, too. The last time coach Marvin Lewis had a 3-0 Bengals team in 2006, he lost 38-13 to the Patriots. New England is now 5-1 against Cincinnati since Brady became the starter in 2001.
The win kept alive the Patriots’ weird regular-season winning streak at home against AFC opponents. They’ve won 32 straight now, with their last loss coming Nov. 30, 2008, against Pittsburgh. (Of course, that discounts the losses to San Francisco, Arizona, and the New York Giants, plus the home playoff losses to the New York Jets and Baltimore.)
But, that streak is still notable. For one thing, the Patriots proved again it’s very hard for opponents – regardless of their conference – to win in Foxborough, as it’s been almost two years since they’ve lost there. But they also scored an important win against an in-conference opponent that can be valuable as a tiebreaker for a playoff bye – or even a playoff spot.
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @leahysean.