Concerns about the Patriots' offense, so pronounced after subpar efforts against Buffalo and the Jets in the first two weeks of the season, had eased considerably after the Pats put up 53 points in the next two. And after a 30-point outburst last Sunday night in Atlanta, it appeared they'd fixed whatever problems they had on that side of the ball.
On Sunday, however, those problems were back. In spades.
The Bengals blitzed and harrassed Tom Brady into an 18-for-38, 197-yard performance, for a quarterback rating of 52.2, and held New England to 248 net yards and two measly field goals as they came away with a 13-6 victory that handed the Pats their first loss of the season.
"The defense played great, as they have all year," said guard Logan Mankins. "We let them down."
"It was just a poor performance," said Brady, who later added: "Silly execution errors, mental mistakes . . . It's hard to drive the ball down the field."
To add insult to injury, Brady's streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass was snapped at 52, two short of Drew Brees' NFL record.
In the first half, the teams traded field goals (39 yards by the Bengals' Mike Nugent with 3:17 left in the second quarter, 42 yards by the Patriots' Stephen Gostkowski with 13 seconds to play) and costly turnovers (a Brandon Spikes interception of an Andy Dalton pass at the New England 5 on the last play of the first quarter, a Reggie Nelson recovery of a LeGarrette Blount fumble on the Cincinnati 24 with about eight minutes left in the half). The resulting 3-3 tie pretty accurately reflected how the game played.
But the Patriots' defense, so stout in the first two quarters, began to crack after the second-half kickoff.
After forcing a three-and-out on the first series of the third quarter, the Pats allowed the Bengals to move from the Cincinnati 9 to the New England 25 before they stiffened; still, the subsequent 50-yard field goal from Nugent - one play after Aqib Talib couldn't keep both feet in bounds after picking off a Dalton heave into the corner of the end zone -- put Cincinnati in front, 6-3.
The next drive was worse. After a Tommy Kelly/Jerod Mayo sack of Dalton pinned the Bengals back on their own 2-yard line, facing a third-and-15, the defense simply crumbled. First was a 28-yard completion to Marvin Jones that got the Bengals out to the 30. Next was another 28-yard completion, this one to Giovani Bernard, that moved the ball to the New England 42. The next big play, a third-down, 17-yard pass from Dalton to A.J. Green, put the ball on the Patriots 6.
Eventually, Cincinnati had a fourth-and-one from the 1. Rather than go for the field goal, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis went for the touchdown . . . . and ex-Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis came through, bulling his way into the end zone with 9:27 left in the fourth quarter for a 13-3 lead.
The defense was under pressure because the offense was producing next to nothing.
"In the first half, we ran the ball pretty well," Mankins told Michael Felger, Troy Brown and Mike Flynn on 'Patriots Postgame Live'. "We didn't run it much in the second half. We threw the ball a lot more. It was just a bad day overall . . .
"[We] didn't sustain drives enough to get runs going. If you get first downs, you can get some runs in. If you're getting stopped on third down, over time it's hard to get some balance to your offense."
The Patriot offense showed its only sign of life on the next do-or-die drive. On a second-and-four from the 30, a 56-yard pass-and-run play from Tom Brady to Aaron Dobson pushed the ball to the Cincinnati 17. On the next play, Brady found Danny Amendola on the 1-yard line; he was touched, however, before he tumbled into the end zone, leaving the Pats with a first-and-goal.
And that's where the magic ended. Blount was stuffed for no gain on first down. Brady missed a tackle-eligible pass to Nate Solder in the end zone on second down. Julian Edelman was unable to hang onto a Brady pass with Adam Jones draped all over him in the end zone on third down. And unwilling to come away with nothing, coach Bill Belichick ordered up a 19-yard Gostkowski field goal that made the score 13-6.
The Pats had two more possessions but never got close to the end zone, with a Jones interception near the goal line in the final 20 seconds sealing the deal. The last drive was hampered by a driving rain that popped up almost as soon as the Pats got the ball with just under two minutes to go near midfield.
"The rain didn't really start 'til that two-minute drive at the end and then it started pouring," said Mankins. "That pretty much summed up our day. We didn't do anything worth a dang all day, then it starts pouring when we try to get something going in a two-minute drive."
Summed up the day, indeed.