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Paul Daugherty is a columnist
for the Cincinnati Enquirer


FOXBOROUGH — Prime time is up there, somewhere. The footlights are in the distance — they’re always in the distance — winking slyly at the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals might yet dance with the stars. In their latest try, they tripped and fell face-first. Again.

In relapsing to the Patriots, the Bengals lost, 43-17, in every way they could. Their offense was ineffective and at times timid. Their defenders were out of position all night. They fumbled a kickoff the Patriots returned for a touchdown.

Afterward, the only appropriate thing was to apologize to America for the no-show.

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Coincidentally, the Bengals weren’t the only team with something to prove Sunday night. Coming into the game, the Patriots were a mess. “Patriots mess’’ sounds like some unlikely NFL oxymoron. That doesn’t make it a lie.

The Patriots followed a dismal win over Oakland two weeks ago with an abject embarrassment at Kansas City last Monday night, then spent the past week hearing how awful they were. This is music to a successful team with lots of pride.

Even guys with three Super Bowl rings and a wife named Gisele feel the need to prove themselves occasionally. Tom Brady started the game with a 20-yard bullet down the middle to Brandon LaFell, and kept the fire in his eyes all night. On the Patriots’ first two possessions, both touchdowns, Brady was 5 for 6 for 98 yards and a TD.

In the first quarter, when the Patriots needed a yard on fourth and 1 from the Bengals’ 5, Brady ran a sneak for 4 yards. In the third quarter, when the Patriots needed to answer a Bengals’ score that cut the New England lead to 20-10, Brady captained an 86-yard drive, finishing it with a 16-yard TD pass to Rob Gronkowski.

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It was a resolute display from a team that has danced before, and hasn’t forgotten how.

And the Bengals?

The Bengals aimed to get ahead early, then have their defense hold a rodeo in Brady’s backfield. That didn’t happen.

The Bengals wanted to exploit the single coverage A.J. Green got from Darrelle Revis. That didn’t happen. Revis owned the island Sunday until he left with a hamstring injury in the third quarter. By then, his team led, 34-10.

The Bengals wanted desperately to shuck their rep as prime-time losers. That didn’t happen, either. That one got reinforced.

The Bengals trailed, 20-3, at halftime. Their only scoring drive was laborious, and pushed by three Patriots’ penalties. The play-calling didn’t help. Gifted with a first down at the Patriots’ 13, the Bengals decided it was a good idea to send Gio Bernard up the middle three times. He made 9 yards. Mike Nugent made the 23-yard field goal. Meanwhile, Andy Dalton was throwing for all of 63 yards in the first 30 minutes.

Monday, fans will blame Dalton for this, because blaming Dalton for these games is what fans do. He didn’t shine Sunday night, for sure. It wasn’t until the game got somewhat out of hand that Dalton put up numbers that will please the stat-heads, but won’t tell the story. Dalton threw for 114 yards and two TDs in the third quarter. All that did was keep the Bengals within 17.

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Truth is, though, the Patriots outclassed the Bengals all over the field. Their trashing of the Cincinnati defense was most impressive. New England had 439 yards of offense. In the first three quarters. Huge holes in the middle of the defense — where the still-concussed Vontaze Burfict would have been a big help — appeared on seemingly every play.

The Patriots even survived 12 penalties in the first three quarters — for 114 yards — and injuries to Revis and safety Devin McCourty.

What’s next for the Bengals is another round of doubting. Those who looked at their 3-0 beginning and saw a different face might still be right. The Bengals are talented enough, more tries at the big time await. See you in Indy in two weeks.

Remember this, too: This is the NFL. Few teams are allowed to be special for long. The Bengals had a corner on special for a month.

“Same old Bengals’’ doesn’t carry the malice it once did. That doesn’t make it any less condemning. “Same old Patriots’’ remains in full effect, too. With a slightly different meaning.