FOXBOROUGH – The bright lights of NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcast were shining on the Cincinnati Bengals.
This was Cincinnati’s statement game as much as it was the Patriots’, who were reeling from a 41-14 drubbing against the Chiefs on Monday Night Football a week earlier and desperate to prove they were a better team than the one that took the field in Kansas City.
The Bengals hadn’t trailed a game at halftime all season, outscoring their opponents, 44-3, in the first half before Sunday’s game.
They came to Gillette Stadium undefeated and fresh off a bye week, hungry to put to rest the nagging notion that they couldn’t compete on the big stage.
Instead, Marvin Lewis’s Bengals faltered out of the gate and fell into a 17-point halftime deficit, and the Patriots’ ran away with a 43-17 win.
“We didn’t underestimate nobody,” Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green said. “We just didn’t play well. We don’t make excuses. We just got our butts whipped.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Twelve of 13 NFL experts on ESPN picked the Bengals to win. But the Patriots stormed to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and never looked back. The Bengals trailed, 20-3, at the half and scored a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter, but three fumbles and defensive breakdowns derailed any comeback attempt.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty was taken out of the game with a rib injury and Andy Dalton attacked the middle of the field, hitting Mohamed Sanu for a 37-yard touchdown to cut it to 20-10 with 11:32 to play in the third quarter.
The Patriots marched down the field and Tom Brady’s 16-yard strike padded the margin. The backbreaker came on the ensuing kickoff, when Brandon Bolden jarred the ball loose from Brandon Tate on the return and Kyle Arrington scooped and scored to blow the lead open to 24 points.
That was it. The Bengals caved in the spotlight — which has become all too familiar for Cincinnati. After Sunday’s loss, the Bengals’ record dropped to 1-11 in prime-time road games since 2005. In the Dalton-Green era, the Bengals are a combined 2-8 in prime-time and playoff games.
“Obviously, you want to come out and play your best,” Dalton said. “We weren’t playing a nobody. We were playing a really good team.
“You’re on the road in a tough environment and if you don’t [play well], it turns out how it did. At the end of the day, it’s just one game, we’re still in the top of the division, we have everything in front of us, so we’ll be ready to go next week.”
The Bengals weren’t making any excuses after Sunday’s loss. Green and Dalton said it didn’t matter that they were playing in prime time, or that they had an untimely bye week after starting the season 3-0. In the first quarter, trailing, 14-0, Dalton had running back Giovani Bernard wide open on a wheel route up the left sideline, but overthrew him.
Later in the second quarter, facing the same deficit, Dalton saw tight end Jermaine Gresham beat linebacker Jamie Collins to the corner of the end zone, and Gresham laid on the turf in disbelief after he dropped the pass. Green fumbled late in the second quarter after a 19-yard gain when Darrelle Revis stripped the ball, and the Patriots tacked on a field goal before the half expired.
“The more we got down, the more we had to throw it and do certain things,” said Dalton. “We had opportunities, we had chances, you can’t turn the ball over. You can’t have drops.”
Yes, the Bengals believe they can win the AFC North. Despite Sunday’s loss, they believe they can play when the bright lights are on them.
Anthony Gulizia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gulizia_a