By: Bob George/
August 23, 2004

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Preseason. Put that smile back on your face.

The last time you saw the Patriots play that bad, Lawyer Milloy had just shuffled off to Buffalo. Great teams aren't perfect, despite what they themselves and their fans would like to think. If you had never seen one game from last year's 17-2 campaign, you would have looked at Saturday night's debacle and laughed at whomever told you that these guys won the most recent Vince.

The Cincinnati Bengals, who took some baby steps back to respectability in 2003, laid a 31-3 pasting on the Patriots over the weekend, and made it look easy. Bill Belichick says that his team needs to get back to fundamentals. The Patriots looked like they wanted nothing to do with playing football, especially in a stinker of a first quarter where the Bengals outscored the Patriots 14-0 and outgained them in total yards 147-7.

The first half, especially the first quarter, was rife with botched defensive plays, dominance of the line of scrimmage by the Bengals, untimely penalties, a passing game which is still pretty much off kilter, and a running back who was the subject of loud boos from his former home fans. It all added up to one of the poorest showings by the Patriots in some time.

Oh, yeah. The game doesn't count.

So, stop worrying about the Patriots going 0-16 or Rodney Harrison being exposed as a non-pass defender or Vince Wilfork as a non-run defender. If this game had meant anything, it is hard to believe that the Bengals would have come out as dominant as they did, and it is even more hard to believe that the Patriots would have looked like they were sleepwalking. These players are not cut from that jib, and their coach would never allow them to play as poorly as they did if the game had been for real.

Still, a huge loss like the Patriots sustained can only help them greatly. If there were any delusions of grandeur on the club with respect to an "easy repeat”, they are all gone by now. It is human nature to feel a sort of letdown against an inferior opponent like the Bengals, given all the huge successes which have preceded this game. It is also human nature that the hunter is always more hungry than the hunted. The Patriots will be dealing with this all year long, much like they did in 2002.

That said, with all due respect to the nice gentleman who writes all those chicken soup books, here is a closer look at some of the things which went wrong, and why there is no real need for alarm. Take note of the repetition of the phrase "the game doesn't count”, and feel that hot soup go down nice and easy.

It is hard to believe that Rudi Johnson is a better back than Corey Dillon. What basically happened was a case of poor tackling technique and a defensive front seven that was either not ready or not intense enough to stop Johnson. Johnson bludgeoned the Patriot defense for 71 yards rushing on 14 carries, and that was just the first quarter. Many of those runs were up the middle, in the area of Keith Traylor, Vince Wilfork and Ted Johnson. The big issue here was that the normally stout defensive line got pushed around, something that never would have happened if the game were not for real.

Meanwhile, Dillon did not handle his Queen City homecoming very well. Dillon wound up with 31 yards on 11 carries, but was basically overwhelmed by a fired up defense which seemed bent on humiliating their former teammate. What likely went wrong here is that the offensive line got manhandled tonight where, if this were the regular season, such domination would not be happening. The Patriot run blockers looked totally out of sync and lacking in intensity and energy. And this is not the seven blocks of granite that the Patriot line was up against. It turned out to be Bengal inspiration against Patriot lack of inspiration, something that won't be there when these teams meet again.

Carson Palmer looks like someone destined for NFL stardom. He threw some quick slants that looked just like Brady, and hit Chad Johnson with a 48-yard strike early in the game with Harrison defending him. Palmer finished 12 of 19 passing for 179 yards and a 133.6 passer rating. He looked solid all evening long, and in complete control of the game. The nice thing about this facet is that in 2003, Belichick was 9-0 against quarterbacks whom he had to face for the second time. The first time, the game didn't count. When things count, Belichick will be ready for Palmer.

Trying to figure out what is up with Brady and the passing offense is not quite so simple. Brady underthrew several open receivers, took some sacks which he normally doesn't take, and threw an interception late in the second half which was thrown right at linebacker Rogers Beckett but deflected into the arms of Kevin Kaesviharn. There is no sense of timing in Brady's game thus far. One problem might be that he has less time to throw than he did last year, but again, things don't count just yet and the offensive line may still be finding its bearings (Adrian Klemm started at left tackle once again in place of the injured Matt Light).

Mostly, it is a case of a team which simply didn't show up against an improving but inferior opponent. On paper, the Patriots still have the Bengals by a mile in talent. But Belichick will use this game as a tool to prevent complacency when inferior teams come up during the regular season. Elite teams do have games like these now and then, and it further reinforces the timeworn football cliché that any team can win on any given day.

Another indicator that Belichick may not be terribly concerned about this loss, despite his insistence that his team was badly outplayed and outcoached, is the fact that the team got Monday off. One's immediate reaction to this might be something like "punish these guys” for cutting such a stinker. Perhaps Belichick saw his team too tired to play well against the Bengals, and agrees with the notion that this would have been different had this been the regular season.

Suffice it to say that when these teams do battle again on December 12th, the game will not at all turn out the way it did Saturday night. The game will be played at Foxborough and not Cincinnati, and the Patriots will remember this spanking. When things count, you will not see Rudi Johnson burst through the Patriot front seven and Chad Johnson dancing through the Patriot secondary without fear of someone taking his head off. You will not see Palmer look like a seven-year veteran out there. You will not see any Patriot player concentrating on Miami (their next opponent) and treating Cincinnati like the foregone conclusions they have been during most of Mike Brown's regrettable ownership regime.

If the Patriots do manage to break off several consecutive wins to start the season and establish the NFL standard for that category, they likely will have the Bengals to thank for it. The Patriots suddenly became a hungry team after Saturday night, and got their spanking out of the way at the best possible time.

As for Dillon, the next time he has to face the Bengals, the reception will be quite the opposite, and his output will likely follow suit.