October 16, 2016. Every last Patriots fan had this one circled on their calendars: Tom Brady’s homecoming following his four-game suspension. Week 5 against the Browns was cool and all, but that was in Cleveland. This game was at Gillette. Tickets for this one went up from at least $1000. Tom Brady and his Patriots did not disappoint in a 35-17 win over the Bengals.
The first half of the game for New England was brutal on both sides of the ball. There were legitimate issues offensively and defensively, unfortunately, but the defense looked abysmal. The biggest issue was third-down defense. Cincinnati converted third-downs way too often, and it killed the Patriots. The Bengals went 5-8 on third downs in the first half. At one point early on, Cincinnati managed to grab a first after managing to put themselves on 2nd and 24.
The pass rush was a big issue, especially on third-downs. QB Andy Dalton dinked and dunked for lots of the first half, and New England had no answer. They let him throw all over the field, and for big gains, too. Tyler Boyd and AJ Green were big issues for the Patriots to begin the game. Boyd burned most of the Pats’ secondary, and Green owned Logan Ryan. In the second half, new Patriot CB Eric Rowe, made his debut and pretty much shut down AJ Green, allowing him to grab two catches.
The Bengals also ran the ball fairly well in the first half. They found lots of gaps and made the Patriots pay for their mistakes; Cincy had a good mixture of both passing and running. Keep in mind, New England was without star linebacker Jamie Collins due to a hip injury in this game, and that was big for both teams. Rookie Elandon Roberts got the call up from the practice squad for this reason, and was doing fantastic until a head injury in the middle of the game sidelined him until the second half. The LB position kept taking hits, and it was big.
Speaking of the linebacking core, Dont’a Hightower. He too had a big hole to fill in place of Collins, and did a spectacular job. This kid needs to get paid, and soon. Hightower recorded 1.5 sacks and a critical safety in the third quarter that was the turning point for the Patriots. This safety brought New England to within two, making it 14-12. That safety happens to be his second in the last two weeks. Pretty impressive.
There’s plenty of issues to talk about, as for the Patriots defense. Those problems are 100% fixable, though. Red zone defense has to be better, third down defense has to be better, and the pass rush should actually exist from here on out. So far, it’s been a bend but don’t break D out of the Patriots. This certainly isn’t the defense we all thought we’d see from New England six weeks ago, but I can’t see any long-term issues as long as things get cleaned up. Most are mechanical problems.
Switching over to the offense. Again, the offense had a sluggish first half, similar to the defense. Receivers could not get open under any circumstances, and Brady was visibly frustrated by that. Cincinnati covered New England very well to start out. The Patriots offense managed a field goal and one lone touchdown in the first half, but that first touchdown was a big one. Brady threw a short ball to running back James White with about a minute and a half left to go in the second quarter, giving New England some serious momentum going into the locker room. The Patriots never looked back after this.
New England went on to score three more touchdowns in the second half, and Brady was out there doing his thing. Brady went 29/35 with 376 yards, 3 TD’s, zero INT’s and a 140.0 passer rating. Brady would disagree, but there’s seriously no rust on the guy whatsoever. He really has not skipped a beat. He’s making every throw, can still pick apart defenses like nobody’s business, and just looks like Tom Brady out there. Doesn’t get much better than that.
There were two guys that stuck out in this game: Brady, and Rob Gronkowski. As Brady makes his return back to the Pats, so does Gronk. Gronk had 7 receptions for a career-high 162 yards and a touchdown. He quietly made history, as it really didn’t feel like he caught for 162 yards at all. There was more to his game on Sunday than his numbers and YAC, though. Late in the second half, things got chippy when Gronk called out Cincinnati's Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones for some low hits. Gronk and Burfict went back and forth on multiple occasions, and exchanged words after nearly every play from there on out. The two of them head butted, which began everything. Gronk eventually got called for a personal foul, and he later apologized for this as he knows he needs to control himself out there.
Another Patriot that had a day himself was Legarrette Blount. Blount was once again a force for this offense, gathering 50 yards on 13 carries, 2 receptions and a touchdown. Similar to Gronk, it wasn’t all about the numbers. Blount too got chirpy with certain Bengals D-men late in the game, and got up in a couple of faces. Blount was expected to have an impact for this Patriots offense, but not many expected this out of him. He’s already put up big numbers and is a top RB to begin the season.
The combination of Blount and White at RB is an early success for New England. Being without the shifty Dion Lewis for the first eight weeks due to a torn ACL was sure to be an issue, but that has not been the case. White ran 7 times and picked up 19 yards, but was used more as a receiver, being thrown at 8 times for 47 yards. When Lewis does eventually come back, this RB core is set.
As for Amendola, Edelman and Bennett, they weren’t used nearly as much as the others. Amendola was used primarily on third downs, with only 2 catches for 30 yards, but both were huge conversions. Edelman probably should have been used more, with 4 receptions for 30 yards. I wish he had been put in the offense more on Sunday, but he, like Amendola, came up big in the few times he was used. As for Bennett, he had 5 catches going for 48 yards, but was used mainly in the second half. When a guy like Gronk has a career-day, it’s hard to get other guys involved, which I understand. That isn’t a bad thing, in the end.
The Patriots stand at 5-1, looking solid as they head to Pittsburgh next week to face the Steelers. Brady looks fantastic. The defense has its own issues, but will be okay. The rest of the offense looks solid, and dangerous. The New England Patriots are the team to beat, but when is that not the case? I’d say I feel sorry for Roger Goodell, but I really don’t.