Hey, Tom Brady: What did we learn on Sunday?
"You can’t kick two field goals and expect to win many games in the NFL," Brady said with a sigh after a 13-6 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati.
Good to know. Indeed, as Sunday proved, it's becoming increasingly clear that, lacking options like Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, there's no margin for error when you're talking abut the New England offense. There will be some games -- like last Sunday night against the Falcons -- when everything clicks nicely, you get 60 minutes of complementary football, you run the ball well, everyone hangs on to passes, and you have the presence of mind to take advantage of gifts that are handed to you by other teams.
Then, there will be games like the one on Sunday against the Bengals. To paraphrase Montgomery Burns, the Patriots offense was as impotent as a Nevada boxing commissioner. The six-point output was their worst since a Sept. 2009 loss to the Jets (a 16-9 loss). New England was 1-for-12 on 3rd down, and didn't cross into Cincinnati territory until the midway mark of the second quarter. The Patriots only sustained drive -- a seven-play series -- came in the fourth quarter, and stalled out before it reached the end zone. And on that drive, with the ball on the 1-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, New England had three chances to punch it into the end zone, but couldn't convert on all three opportunities.
Despite all that, New England was driving for what would have been a game-tying score in a downpour with less than a minute remaining. But a Brady pass near the goal line was picked off by Pacman Jones, ending things and leaving the Patriots with their first defeat of the season.
"We had our chances," said Bill Belichick. "In the end, the game came down to some red-area chances, and that was the point differential in the game today. We’ve got to go back to work and get better in all phases of the game.”
In truth, if it weren’t for another terrific defensive effort, the game might have been over in the third quarter. As bad as the offense was, the defense was pretty good: it stifled a talented young Cincinnati offense, holding them to six points through three-plus quarters. The Patriots forced a pair of takeaways, sacked Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton four times and held elite receiver A.J. Green to five catches and 61 yards.
“Today, the defense played great, as they have all year," said offensive lineman Logan Mankins. "I think we really let them down.”
“Obviously, in the end, we didn’t make enough plays to win the game," said safety Steve Gregory. "That’s how it is in this league. You have to play your best. Overall, we didn’t play our best. We have to go back to work this week and get better. There is a lot of football left to play this year, so we need to get to work and keep growing.”
Brady saw two streaks snapped on Sunday. One, his streak of 52 straight games with a touchdown pass came to an end, two shy of Drew Brees' record. And two, per Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, Brady and the Patriots had gone 70-0 over the last 70 games when the New England defense allowed between zero and 15 points. The 13-6 defeat also put an end to that string.
“I’m bummed we lost," Brady said when he was asked about his touchdown streak. "I think that’s all that really matters."
History tells us that the Patriots have these relatively early speedbumps every year. In 2010, it was a November nightmare in Cleveland that busted up a five-game winning streak … and ultimately served as the last regular-season loss of the year for New England. In 2011, there was the weird choke job in Buffalo against a Bills team that finished the year 6-10. And after four games in 2012, the Patriots were 2-2. (And 3-3 after six games.) All of them turned out to be lessons learned in the maturation of a team that would eventually play into (at least) mid-January and sometimes beyond.
Going forward, there's some reason for optimism: Gronkowski should return either this week or next, Vereen will now be back in the lineup sooner rather than later and Amendola should be back at full strength. With the strides that the defense has taken -- and, other than the Broncos, the wide-open nature of the AFC -- there's certainly reason to believe that if New England gets anything at all offensively, it will be in the upper tier of the AFC.
At the same time, as good as the Patriots defense is playing, the offense needs to stop taking one step forward and two steps back and begin to build some week-to-week consistency. History tells us that there's a good chance of that happening: after all, Brady and Belichick have a lengthy track record of building and improving a team over the course of a full season with an eye toward peaking after Thanksgiving. It's a process that should be made all the easier with the return of talents like Gronkowski and Vereen. But with each passing game, it's becoming clearer that after years of the offense picking up an occasionally sluggish defense, now it's the defense that has to carry the load until the offense gets its act together. How that all comes together will ultimately determine the legacy of the 2013 Patriots.
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday in Cincinnati.
THIS WAS NOT TOM BRADY'S FINEST HOUR
It was a perfect storm of suck for the quarterback, who had to battle the elements, a nasty Cincinnati defensive front and the fact that he was still without two of his most dynamic offensive options in Gronkowski and Vereen. He went 18-for-38 for 197 yards with one interception and four sacks, and his streak of 52 consecutive games with a touchdown pass was snapped. But he was at fault on several throws, and whether it was the Bengals, the weather or the fact that Mercury was in retrograde, he has to be faulted for several missed connections. His best drive likely came in the fourth quarter: with the Patriots trailing 13-3, he put together a seven-play, 75-yard series that took 2:53, with the highlight coming on a 53-yard pass play to Aaron Dobson where the rookie receiver made a nice play on the ball, but took a confusing route to the end zone and almost lost the handle. On the next play, Brady hit Amendola on a 16-yarder, but Amendola couldn't roll into the end zone. Then, on the goal line, a Brandon Bolden run was stopped. Brady overshot Nate Solder (who was being held on the play) who was working as a Mike Vrabel-style tight end in a goal-line situation. And then, Edelman dropped a pass in the end zone. Ultimately, the Patriots had to settle for a 19-yard field goal. While it didn't theoretically cost them the game, the red zone misfires contributed to Brady's woes.
THE PATRIOTS MIGHT NOT FACE A BETTER DEFENSIVE FRONT ALL YEAR
The sort of teams that give the New England offensive line fits are the ones who can generate sustained pressure on the quarterback with a minimum number of rushers while dropping as many into coverage as possible. While it sounds good on paper, there are only a handful of teams who have the personnel to execute that game plan. (The Lions and Giants are two teams that come to mind.) The Bengals now have to be considered one of those teams. In truth, Cincinnati might be the best and most physical front seven New England faces all season long. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins was a dominant presence up front and had an early sack of the quarterback (proving Belichick right when he said earlier in the week that if they had to hold a re-do of the 2010 draft, the fourth-round pick would go first overall). Meanwhile Wallace Gilberry had two sacks of his own on the day and linebacker Vontaze Burfict added one sack. In all, they got to the quarter for four sacks and added eight quarterback hits. Unlike last week where the Falcons' front had the tempo dictated to them by the Patriots, the Bengals were tough and physical and controlled the tempo of the game. No wonder Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer got a game ball from Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.
MANY OF THE OFFENSIVE STRUGGLES CAN BE TRACED BACK TO THE OFFENSIVE LINE
Because of the strong, fast and physical defensive front of the Bengals, it was a rough afternoon for the New England offensive line, which yielded more pressure on Brady than any time all season long. (Ultimately, Brady's four sacks were the most he's taken in 2013, and the most since a Dec. 2, 2012 win over Miami when he also took four sacks.) Solder appeared to struggle in protection early at left tackle, and while the Patriots were able to use the Bengals' aggressiveness and attacking style against them on a few occasions with some screens, draws and reverses, very little worked for New England when it came to protection in the running game or passing game.
DANNY AMENDOLA TOOK A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
The receiver, who was playing in his first game since suffering a groin injury in a Week 1 win over the Bills, was clearly being managed in terms of his overall snaps, but ended up with a nice final line, catching four balls on nine targets for 55 yards. His best sequence came at the end of the first half when he had an 11-yard reception on a nice short pass to the left by Brady. On the following series -- the last one before the end of the half -- he had a 21-yard pickup that helped get New England into range for a 42-yard field goal from Gostkowski at the end of the second quarter that allowed the Patriots to get on the board. It certainly appeared that Amendola was moving well and not suffering any residual effects from his time on the shelf, and it will be interesting to see how he's utilized in the coming weeks -- that is, if he'll be thrown back into the mix completely when New England meets New Orleans next week in Foxboro.
THE RUNNING GAME WAS A MIXED BAG
Without Ridley, LeGarrette Blount got the bulk of the carries, coming away with 12 of the 18 opportunities New England had on the ground, and ending up with 12 carries for 51 yards. However, his low moment -- for the game and the season -- came in the first half. The Patriots had their first real scoring chance in the second quarter when New England crossed into Cincy territory for the first time, but Bengals linebacker Carlos Dunlap stripped Blount, forcing the fumble, his first lost fumble of the year. (After the fumble, the Bengals were able to put together their best drive of the first half when Dalton led the Bengals on a 10-play, 49-yard series that took 4:42, and ended when Mike Nugent connected on a 39-yarder to make it 3-0 with 3:17 left in the first half.) Bolden saw some action, and provided a nice multidimensional look, with 40 yards receiving and 24 yards on the ground. However, he lost the handle on a Brady screen pass in the first half that ultimately led to a New England punt. In all, New England had 82 rushing yards on 18 carries.
RYAN ALLEN IS PRETTY GOOD
The New England punter was one of the best things about the game for the Patriots -- the rookie pinned Cincinnati inside the 20-yard line five times. He finished with eight punts for 353 yards, an average of 44.1 yards, and the Bengals ended up with just three punt returns for a total of 17 yards. In truth, it was one of the best days of the year for the specialists: Gostkowski connected on a 42-harder and a 19-yarder, and put two of his three kickoffs in the end zone. And returners Devin McCourty (pressed into service after Leon Washington went out with an ankle issue, he had three returns for 74 yards, an average of 24.7 yards per return) and Julian Edelman (four punt returns for 43 yards, an average of 10.8 yards per return) consistently provided the Patriots with good field position when they were given the chance.
TOMMY KELLY IS VALUABLE
The veteran defensive tackle, who played so well over the course of the first four games of the season, saw his importance rise after Vince Wilfork went down in last Sunday's win over the Falcons. But Kelly went down with a knee injury in the fourth quarter, and after he returned for a few snaps, was sidelined for the rest of the game. (It was no coincidence that the Bengals were able to punch it in shortly after Kelly went to the sidelines with his knee problem.) According to reporters, he politely declined to speak after the game, but did indicate that he's OK. The loss of Wilfork is difficult to overcome, but the loss of Kelly and Wilfork will create a major void in the Patriots' run defense that will present the coaching staff with a challenge. All that being said, the Patriots got decent performances out of Joe Vellano and Chris Jones -- Vellano was active along the defensive front, and ended up with three tackles, while Jones had two quarterback hits, 1 1/2 sacks and one tackle for loss.
THE LINEBACKERS CAN DO MORE IF NEEDED
The New England crew of linebackers was dominant at times. Brandon Spikes had a pick in the first half -- the time Dalton has tossed an interception in the red-zone in his professional career -- and added 12 tackles, (two for a loss) and a pass defensed. And while he missed a few tackles, Jerod Mayo ended up with 11 tackles, 1/2 sack, one pass defensed and a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter on an impressive play by Devin McCourty, who knocked the ball free from Gio Bernard. Mayo was able to corral the ball along the sideline before it went out of bounds, giving the Patriots possession. Without Wilfork for the duration and Kelly for parts of the fourth quarter, the linebackers stepped up and played well throughout the contest. The Patriots have far greater depth at the linebacker spot than they do along the defensive line, and it will be interesting to see going forward how they try and maximize the work out of their linebackers and how that depth can paper over some of the deficiencies in depth on the defensive line.
THE PATRIOTS ALMOST GOT AWAY WITH ONE
Despite all of the offensive misery, there were stretches where it appeared that the Bengals were trying to give this one away. Spikes' interception was on a horribly thrown ball from Dalton, while the Bengals' second turnover -- which came on a forced fumble after a sweet hit on Bernard by McCourty -- came in the fourth quarter and appeared to set the Patriots up very nicely for what would have been a game-tying score with just under four minutes remaining. And two penalties on New England's final drive in the fourth quarter (one a defensive offsides on a fourth down, the other a 15-yard roughing the passer on a third-down situation) allowed the Patriots to keep hope alive as they drove -- in the middle of a monsoon -- for what would have been a game-tying score. (Speaking of penalties, it marked the first game since Nov. 30, 2009 where New England wasn't assessed a single penalty.)