By: Bob George/
December 12, 2004

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FOXBOROUGH -- It's scary to think of what Cincinnati will be like if it ever gets a defense some day.

They ring up 58 points on Cleveland, though they gave up 48 in the process. They score 24 points in the fourth quarter at Baltimore, but at the time they were down 26-3. Now they come into Gillette Stadium against the world champions and amass 478 yards and 28 points in a venue where teams often have problems avoiding getting shut out, and they still lose by a touchdown.

There is no question that what the Patriots saw in August was no fluke, and that the Bengals have some of the best offensive talent in the league. But a great day by Tom Brady, coupled with some opportunistic turnovers caused by the Patriot defense, propelled the Patriots to a 35-28 win over the Bengals on Sunday. Combined with the Jets losing 17-6 at Pittsburgh (honk if you were rooting for the Jets), the Patriots clinch their second straight AFC East crown (the Patriots clinched a playoff berth merely by winning).

What was supposed to be a grudge match between Corey Dillon and his scorned former team (though Dillon was seen warmly interacting with his former mates and his former coach Marvin Lewis before the game) instead morphed into an offensive lover's delight, replete with high quarterback ratings, terrific receiver stats, and generally lousy defense. The Bengals don't play particularly good defense anyway, but watching Carson Palmer and later Jon Kitna torch the depleted Patriot secondary, as well as watching Rudi Johnson make lots of Patriot tacklers miss, had to make Patriot Nation feel concerned rather than happy over the win and the division title.

Palmer's numbers were pretty impressive. He finished 18 of 24 passing for 202 yards and two touchdowns. His final rating was 110.1, the only blemish being an interception in the second quarter which was run back 34 yards for a touchdown by Asante Samuel. It was his only bad pass of the day, as he tried to hit T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the right flat, but Samuel timed his defense perfectly and ran untouched into the end zone.

Kitna had to come in for Palmer late in the third quarter after the starter was hit low by Richard Seymour (who was being held by Rich Braham while hitting Palmer) and suffered a sprained knee. Kitna managed 9 of 13 passing for 126 yards and a touchdown and a 93.8 rating. Again, he suffered only one blemish, an interception in the fourth quarter by Troy Brown (who is now tied with Eugene Wilson for the team lead in picks with three). The two quarterbacks combined for a 104.3 rating.

Houshmandzadeh is making Bengal Nation forget Peter Warrick. He had a monster game, catching 12 passes for 145 yards. The top Cincinnati receiver, Chad Johnson, caught only five passes, but they went for 80 yards and one was for a touchdown. These two players bedeviled the Patriot secondary all game long; in particular, Randall Gay was victimized on several key plays, and Palmer repeatedly found receivers in open zone seams where, if Ty Law and Tyrone Poole were healthy, the receivers would have been played a lot tighter.

The running back situation was a push, as this game became a passing duel. Rudi Johnson outgained his former teammate by one yard (89-88), but Dillon finished with a better average (4.0 to 3.7). Both Johnson and Dillon were adept at picking up the tough yards, but it seemed that Johnson did a better job of toughing out extra yards against a Patriot defensive line which generally was getting pushed around by the Bengal offensive line all game long.

There were a few key moments to talk about which underscore the great offensive day the Bengals had, or the bad defensive day the Patriots had, depending upon your point of view.

The Patriots were not able to blitz Palmer at all, and never sacked Palmer in the entire game. On one play in the second quarter, facing third and 12 at the Bengal 29, Palmer found Houshmandzadeh for a 33-yard gain despite the Patriots sending seven men in on a blitz. The offensive line picked it up perfectly, and Gay had no chance trying to cover Houshmandzadeh one on one. In the second quarter, facing third and goal at the two, Ted Johnson blitzed up the middle, but Palmer slipped an easy touchdown pass to tight end Matt Schobel in the spot vacated by Johnson after Wilson got caught looking the wrong way.

If this were not enough, the Bengals were able to move the football despite a hail of penalties. Their last drive of the third quarter saw them move the ball from their own 46 to the Patriot 5. After a holding penalty on Braham, Kitna found Rudi Johnson for a left screen pass for 29 yards on first and 20. After Chad Johnson was called for a pushoff on Brown, the Bengals had second and 20 at the Patriot 27. Kitna merely flipped two 11-yard tosses to Houshmandzadeh for a first and goal at the five. The drive ended in a Brown interception, but it showed how easily the Bengals could move the football on the Patriots.

Special teams also laid an egg. In the third quarter, facing fourth and six at the Patriot 11, Shayne Graham lined up for a 24-yard field goal attempt. Brad Seely overloaded the right side of the line, so punter/holder Kyle Larson picked up the snap and ran left. Larson walked in practically untouched for an 11-yard touchdown run as Bill Belichick seethed in disgust on the sideline.

So, how did the Patriots manage to win?

The three turnovers (in addition to the two picks, Rudi Johnson lost a fumble at the Patriot 12 on the opening drive, killing off a possible Bengal touchdown and the first time in 18 games that the Patriots would not have scored first) are the chief culprits in the Bengals coming up short. But Tom Brady will go down as the unsung hero in this game for the Patriots, as he managed to outpass both Palmer and Kitna.

Brady riddled the suspect Bengal secondary for 260 yards on 18 of 26 passing, two touchdowns, and most important, no interceptions. His main target was David Patten, who caught five passes for 107 yards and a 48-yard touchdown bomb where Tory James, the NFL interception leader, could not cover him one on one on a deep post pattern. Brady's quarterback rating was 127.1, higher than either Bengal quarterback (had Palmer not suffered the one pick, his rating would have turned out only .3 better than Brady).

Brady's numbers would have been better but for some weird play calling at times by future Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis. The Patriots suffered two three-and-outs on successive drives in the third and fourth quarter, calling for passes when the situation screamed for Dillon runs, then trying to pass on second and three at their own 10. The following fourth quarter drive had a puzzling finish; facing fourth and one at the Bengal 40, the Patriots tried a fake punt with Larry Izzo moving up under center to take the snap, but nobody blocked Duane Clemons and he stuffed Izzo for no gain.

This is another case where a win is a win and the Patriots will take it. But lots of people loyal to the Patriots have to be pulling for the swift return of Law and Poole.

And that Cincinnati takes its sweet time in getting that defense in place.