The New England Patriots passed, intercepted, and returned kickoffs for touchdowns Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium as they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 38-24. The defense, which had been heavily scrutinized during the preseason, forced two turnovers and kept the Bengals out of the end zone until midway through the third quarter.
Tom Brady, who signed a 4-year, $72 million contract two days ago, threw for three touchdowns and 258 yards, going 25/35 and finishing with a quarterback rating of 120.9.
Two of his touchdown passes were caught by Wes Welker, who was playing in his first NFL regular season game since tearing the medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in his left knee in January 2010. Welker played this game as if none of that had ever happened. He was Brady’s top receiver against the Bengals, leading the team with 8 receptions for 64 yards and 2 touchdowns. He seemed to have no trouble cutting, frequently eluding and confusing his defenders to pick up extra yards on his receptions.
Brady’s first two touchdown passes came in the first half, then the offense seemed to take the third quarter off. Brady and his corps ran just five plays from scrimmage in the third quarter, going 3-and-out in their only drive. The Bengals, meanwhile, orchestrated two 12-play drives in the third quarter, both of which ended with Carson Palmer touchdown passes. The quarter ended with the Bengals down just two touchdowns.
However, Tom Brady found his form in the fourth quarter. He began the final quarter by driving 81 yards to the Bengals’ end zone, finishing the drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski cut to the back right corner of the end zone, and Brady lofted the ball over his head. Gronkowski went up and caught the ball cleanly for the first touchdown reception of his NFL career. The Patriots may finally have a capable tight end to complement their talented receivers. Should Gronkowski stay healthy, his 2nd-round draft pick may turn out to be one of the steals of the draft.
Brady’s drive ate up 7:41 of clock-time and pushed the lead to three touchdowns. The Bengals did not have enough time to come back.
The Patriots defense, so maligned for its youth and lack of pass rush, took steps to prove naysayers wrong. They allowed the Bengals exactly one first down in the first quarter, sacking Palmer to end the opening drive, then following that up with a 3-and-out and then a recovered fumble.
The Bengals did not put together a drive longer than five plays until just over six minutes into the second quarter. That drive ended when linebacker Gary Guyton undercut tight end Jermaine Gresham, easily intercepting Carson Palmer’s pass. Guyton then bolted for the end zone, eluding all tacklers and finishing the 59-yard interception with a touchdown. A drive that could’ve cut New England’s lead to 10 instead pushed it to 24. Through the first half, the defense allowed just a 54-yard field goal.
While it’s true that the Bengals owned the third quarter, they also received some inadvertent help from the Patriots. The second half began with the Bengals kicking to the Patriots. Wide receiver Brandon Tate fielded the ball at the 3-yard line, then after high-stepping for a moment began to sprint up-field. Eluding tackler after tackler, Tate sprinted 97 yards for the touchdown, pushing the lead to 31-3. What might have otherwise been a long offensive drive by the Patriots was instead an electrifying 12 second special teams score. It meant more time on the field for the defense, but they were happy to trade extra playing time for a four-touchdown lead.
This game was an offensive triumph. Through the entire game, the Patriots punted exactly once: during their lone 3-and-out drive in the third quarter. No one fumbled, and the Patriots only turned the ball over once: on downs, with 1:10 left in the game, up two touchdowns. It may have been an act of kindness by the Patriots to not kick an easy field goal in that situation, electing instead to go for it on fourth down and give the Bengals the opportunity to stop them and orchestrate one more drive.
Defensively, the Patriots played exceptional football for a half, then ran out of steam midway through the third quarter. Playing over 11 minutes of the third quarter slowed their pass rush, which had successfully sacked Palmer in the first quarter, and led to Palmer being hurried but never sacked in the second half. He played very well, going 34/50 for 345 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. His primary receiver was Chad Ochocinco, who caught 12 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown. He never did fire that musket.