By: Bob George/
October 01, 2006

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Patriots notebook: Season starts with Houston at Foxboro

CINCINNATI -- You want body language? Check out Rudi Johnson during the entire fourth quarter.

While Rudi (where the Bengals and "Johnson” are concerned, you have to use first names) sat and pouted during the final quarter, the Patriots blew the game open with two sacks of Carson Palmer leading to a 17-point explosion. When the dust settled at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, the Patriots had regained all their lost swagger, the Bengals were exposed as a flawed team, and the Patriots walked off with a 38-13 win.

This game turned suddenly from a tight contest into a complete Patriot domination, where all facets of their game clicked. In one week, Tom Brady now knows where all his new receivers are and was hitting them as if they had all spent the last six years here. The vaunted Patriot running attack was at its best, with the non-ex-Bengal leading the way. The Patriot defense made some early adjustments and shut down the powerful Bengal attack after giving up two early field goals.

And Stephen Gostkowski even kicked a field goal.

This is a classic "where do you begin” deal. A good starting point is always Brady, the subject of lots of "body language scrutiny” this week. Brady did have a shaky beginning, but settled in and began to finally find a rhythm with some of his new receivers. Doug Gabriel hauled in four catches for 57 yards, and was left wide open for a 25-yard score late in the first half. Reche Caldwell had two catches for 20 yards and survived a horrific collision with Kevin Kaesviharn in the third quarter. Brady's passer rating was 89.9, lower than you might expect because he was picked off in the first quarter after overthrowing a wide-open Gabriel.

The key to this game was to get a lot out of the running game, and the Patriots certainly did. The Patriots rushed for 236 yards as a team, the most for a Patriot team in 13 years. Even though Corey Dillon had the spotlight coming back to his old digs and did score a late touchdown (followed by a celebration penalty, but who could blame him), Laurence Maroney was the offensive star of the game. Maroney finished with 125 yards rushing on 15 carries, featuring two touchdown runs of 11 and 25 yards, and a glittering 41-yard scamper late in the third quarter. Dillon managed 67 yards on 17 carries and the aforementioned one-yard score late in the game.

Most of the Patriot runs were up the middle, right behind the guards and center. The Patriots had an issue at right tackle, with rookie Ryan O'Callaghan out with an injury. Wesley Britt and Nick Kaczur filled in and did a generally good job. Brady was never sacked, and when you can rush for 236 yards as a team, the line has done its job and then some.

Early on in the game, Carson Palmer was moving his team rather easily. Passes to Chad Johnson and runs by Rudi helped the Bengals gain 115 total yards on the first two drives. But in what would later become critical in the game, both drives ended in Shayne Graham field goals. Except for their first possession of the second half off of a missed 48-yard field goal by Gostkowski, the Bengal offense never really threatened again for the rest of the game. Eight of the final nine Bengal drives either ended in punts or lost fumbles.

How did this happen? Two basic elements helped shut down the Bengal offense. First, the Patriots shifted from a base 3-4 defense to a quasi-base 4-3, which explains why Jarvis Green had three sacks and one forced fumble. In the 4-3, the Patriots played five defensive backs (including Troy Brown) and two linebackers (primarily Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin), making it actually a 5-2-4. The four down linemen helped slow down Rudi (14 carries, 65 yards, 41 of those yards in the first half).

Meanwhile, the nickel package in the secondary did perhaps the most important defensive job of the game, that being taking the vaunted Bengal receivers out of the game. Of special mention here is Hank Poteat, who shows up occasionally on the Patriot roster and seems to come up with big plays at the right time. He made three key defensive plays including one pass defensed. Poteat, along with Chad Scott and Brown, helped neutralize the strong Bengal pass attack.

Back to Brady. He completely regained the classic poise he is famous for and began to deal with confidence as the game wore on. He finally started to get into a rhythm with Gabriel after the early overthrow/interception (Tory James got the interception). He found Ben Watson for a 35-yard catch in the second quarter. While his numbers aren't what you would call glitzy, his efficiency more than made up for it and the Bengal defense really had no answer for him.

To many observers, this game might seem incredibly unexpected coming off of last Sunday night's stinker at home against Denver. Given all variables involved, one might have at least expected a better offensive output against New England by Cincinnati. But Bill Belichick managed to come up with the right game plan for the situation, something that he is renowned for. He exposed the Bengal defense for being an adverse unit, and he showed the league a terrific way to slow down Palmer and to take away Chad and his wideout partner, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, out of the picture.

The Patriots are now 3-1, and in sole possession of first place in the AFC East. They have Miami at home, then a bye week. Assuming the Patriots don't take the 1-3 Dolphins lightly (who lost on Sunday to the previously winless Houston Texans), the Patriots have set themselves up nicely for the next several weeks. They picked just the right week to play their best game of the season, and the good feelings coming from this win should last for a while.

So, shut up about Brady. He's completely fine. Dillon got to celebrate in front of his former fans. Chad was put down well enough while Rudi sat and pouted. It was a great day for the Patriots, all around.

Perhaps Cris Collinsworth of NBC Sports said it best. "If Bill Belichick is talking trash, you have to really worry about the team they're playing!” Belichick should have smiles on his face for some time to come.