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Patriots 35, Bengals 17: Patriots escape the trap with a dominant 2nd half

After a lethargic 35 minutes to start the game, the Patriots dominated the final 25 for a convincing win over an AFC playoff contender.

Even though this was Tom Brady’s first game at Gillette Stadium, this has the classic makings for a trap. The Patriots are 4-1 vs. the Bengals with Tom Brady and the AFC North-leading Steelers, who lost their trap game against the Miami Dolphins, were up next on the road. It would have been easy for the Patriots to lose focus in this game with a crucial one coming up next week. In fact, the Patriots played that way in the first half despite outscoring the Bengals 10-7. The Patriots continued to look slow and lethargic on the opening drive of the 2nd half on both sides of the ball, until a big play on defense completely flipped the game around.

Slow start put Patriots in early hole: The Patriots scored a FG on the opening drive, but for the rest of the first half were very sluggish. The Bengals offense was able to march down the field for most of the half, although a goal-line stand limited the damage on the scoreboard. Since the Bengals offense couldn’t take advantage of the Patriots lethargic play, the Patriots were able to push the tempo on their final drive of the first half and quickly marched down the field with RB James White carrying the team on that drive. The Patriots got into the end zone in less than 90 seconds. The Bengals scored on their opening possession in the second half and had stopped the Patriots’ opening drive of the half until the Patriots got a huge momentum change from their defense two plays after the punt.

Dont’a Hightower shows why he’s the defensive MVP: The biggest moment of the game came when the Patriots pinned the Bengals at their own 17. After a holding penalty, Dont’a Hightower came unblocked on a delayed blitz and got to Bengals QB Andy Dalton in the end zone. Hightower has recorded safeties in back-to-back games for the Patriots defense. After that play, the Patriots would outscore the Bengals 23-3 for the rest of the game. While Collins deservingly gets a lot of press for his big plays, Hightower gets everyone lined up right and is the defensive signal caller when both players are healthy. If I had to choose between Hightower and Collins, and ideally the Patriots extend either or both, I pick Zeus.

Rob Gronkowski has monster second half: The Patriots offense was carried by a familiar name, with Rob Gronkowski having one of his best halves as a pro. The 6’6” 265-lb TE picked up 7 catches for 162 yards and a touchdown. The 162-yard output is a career high for Gronk and reminded everyone why he’s the best TE in football. Not bad for a guy who was listed as questionable with the stomach flu, as he ate up the Bengals secondary in the second half. This Vine basically summed up what he did to the Bengals.

Patriots deny AJ Green of touchdowns on both Red Zone stops: In the team’s first five games, Red Zone defense had been a problem with opposing offenses getting a TD on 8/10 drives. AJ Green is one of the best WRs in the NFL, but the Patriots were able to keep him from scoring. Green put up 6 catches for 87 yards (mostly against zones or Logan Ryan, who was often the victim of good throws beating him), but that comes as no surprise because he’s going to put up numbers.

The first play was against Malcolm Butler, who gives up 6” to Green, which is usually a mismatch in that area. For whatever reason, Dalton threw a head-high pass, which was low enough for Butler to disrupt the catch. The Patriots would wind up making a goal-line stand two plays later to thwart the Bengals second drive of the game. That would turn out to be huge later, even though the final margin was decided by more than 7 points.

The second half, the Patriots decided to put the 6’1” Eric Rowe in coverage on the 6’4” AJ Green. With the size difference cut in half and a very athletic CB on Green, the Patriots limited him to 2 catches for 32 yards as the Bengals were only able to put up 3 points after their 2nd half opening drive. In the 4th quarter, the Bengals got Green in a 1-on-1 matchup vs. Rowe in the end zone and the Patriots CB decisively won that battle and batted away the pass for force a FG attempt for the Bengals last points of the game.

Vontaze Burfict and the Bengals defenses are POSes: Extracurricular activities occurred in the 4th quarter, as the Patriots were flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a personal foul. The play that might have set off the Patriots was when Burfict went unnecessarily low on Martellus Bennett’s knees. Fortunately, it wound up being only a glancing blow and Bennett was not injured on the play.

That hit really seemed to get under Gronk’s skin, who was later penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct after making a catch. The penalty hurt the team as it gave them a first and goal at the 23 instead of the 8 yard line. I guess in the Bengals case, the only way they could stop Gronk was to get him disqualified. However, it’s not a good idea to get Gronk angry, as Sergio Brown learned all too well two seasons ago.

Another questionable play happened when Blount took a handoff and was thrown into the ground again well after the play. Blount got teed off as well and later committed a retaliatory hit that drew a flag. The Patriots normally don’t exhibit that type of behavior in a football game, but with the Bengals stirring up crap after the whistle, you understand why. Blount would later get revenge on the final play of that drive with a garbage time TD enabled by a Cincinnati personal foul that stopped the clock at 2:15 to go.