FOXBOROUGH – The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings. A Bengals game ain’t over until Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones start snapping.
When the latter happens, your boys probably did well.
A tough Cincinnati team faced Tom Brady in his 2016 home opener on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Brady withstood a fierce Bengals pass rush for most of the game and managed to complete 29 of 35 passes for 376 yards and three touchdowns. The final score was 35-17 Patriots, but the game was closer than the score indicated. The defense was still torched for far too many passing yards, Brady was sacked three times, and Stephen Gostkowski missed still another extra point.
But the positives carried the day for the 5-1 Patriots. Brady’s QB rating was 140. Rob Gronkowski is returning to form with seven catches for 162 yards and a touchdown. James White led the team with eight receptions and caught the other two touchdown passes. The Patriot defense registered a safety for the second straight game, and pulled off a nice goal line stand in the second quarter.
Penalties came into play, and two calls turned the game to the Patriots’ favor. Late in the first half, a sack of Brady by Burfict put the Patriots at their own 17, third down and 18. On the ensuing play, Dre Kirkpatrick was called for illegal contact on Chris Hogan, and the ticky tack call gave the Patriots a gift first down which eventually became a 15-yard touchdown pass to White for a 10-7 halftime lead for the Patriots. This call turned the game to the Patriots at that time, but another call completely changed the complexion of the game.
After the Bengals scored on their second half opening drive to make it 14-10 Bengals, the Patriots went three and out. Cincinnati got the ball at their own 16. On second down, a holding call on Cedric Ogbuehi put the ball on the eight-yard line. On the next play, Dont’a Hightower sacked Andy Dalton in the end zone for a safety to make it 14-12 Bengals. It was all Patriots from there, as the Patriots took the free kick and went 68 yards in five plays, with Gronkowski hauling in a 4-yard touchdown pass to put the Patriots up for good.
The teams combined for 13 penalties. Towards the end of the game, Gronkowski was duped into an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by Burfict, for which Gronk apologized after the game and took full responsibility for what was officially called taunting. Burfict and Jones are noted for losing their cool in key junctures of games, especially the end game when the outcome might either still hang in the balance or the game is slipping away from them.
Gostkowski is perhaps nearing the “concern” category. He missed an extra point wide left, whereas his tendency this year has been to miss wide right. Late in the game, he did hit a 31- yard field goal which barely made its way inside the left upright. Gostkowski, who is usually very cool and not given to being affected by high pressure situations, looks a little unsettled out there. Nothing should be done at this time, Gostkowski has earned the right to let him kick himself back to normal. The problem will be late in the season and the playoffs, where Bill Belichick might have to think twice about kicking versus going for it (cross-reference: Super Bowl XLII).
If there be any real “concern”, the pass defense is still getting gashed on occasion. A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd had good games, combining for 167 receiving yards. Boyd, in particular, was annoying in that he averaged nearly 20 yards a catch. Malcolm Butler did have some nice passes defensed, but for the most part Logan Ryan was matched up with Green and Ryan was on former Patriot Brandon LaFell. LaFell did burn Butler for an early third quarter touchdown, but Boyd managed long gains on Butler, Ryan and Duron Harmon. It still looks like the secondary is largely playing off the receivers instead of jamming them at the line of scrimmage, sort of a “bend but don’t break” look.
In the end, the Patriots made a few more plays than Cincinnati did. Dalton himself was sacked two times, the running game for Cincinnati (Giovanni Bernard, Jeremy Hill) averaged just over three yards a carry and failed to score on two whacks from the one-yard line in the second quarter. Neither team suffered a turnover, but the Patriots did keep the Bengals out of the end zone in the fourth quarter.
Early on, the Bengals made Brady’s like difficult. The offensive line had problems with the front seven in the first half. Brady, however, found life in the pocket more comfortable in the second half and eventually found a rhythm, especially with Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett.
Hightower’s safety punctuated a nice day for the front seven. What was even more noteworthy was how thin the Patriots were at linebacker. An injury early on to Elandon Roberts, plus Jamie Collins and Shea McLellin being game scratches, forced Matt Patricia to have to go with nickel packages and two linebackers most of the time. Rob Ninkovich had to play inside instead of outside. Hightower’s safety was the biggest play of the day, but Hightower and Ninkovich did yeoman work given how depleted the Patriots were at that position.
The Patriots get another AFC North opponent next week, their third straight. They travel to Pittsburgh, where they will be favored slightly and might not get Ben Roethlisberger at 100%. Over the years the Patriots have had good days at Heinz Field. Defensively, the Patriots will probably try and take Antonio Brown out of the game and let them try and beat the Patriots with Le’Veon Bell. It will be a tough defensive struggle.
Once again, when they’re “on to Cincinnati”, the result was victory. Credit the Bengals for not being easy prey as they were in 2014. A late touchdown by LeGarrette Blount made the victory margin larger than it really was. It was a tough win for the Patriots.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary