I have to admit, I was a little worried before this game, having caught the anticlimactic preseason finale against the Giants on a tiny airplane TV screen last week. From what I could decipher, the Patriots' first-string defense was well overmatched by Eli Manning, and the offensive line looked like it was missing Logan Mankins.
I was especially worried about the defensive matchup between the Bengals, who were coming off a solid offensive year last year with offseason reinforcements like Terrell Owens, and the Patriots' young defensive backs, after the Rams carved them up and the Giants bested them.
I know the preseason doesn't dictate how the regular season will go, but I also don't think that it's without its key indicators. It was clear within the first two quarters of the 2007 preseason, for example, that we had something special offensively. This year, especially in that Rams game, the Patriots defensive backs have looked painfully green.
As it turns out, though, it was the Bengals defense that should've been worried.
Welker and the tight ends
When it comes to this game's offensive standouts, the first mention for most will probably go to Wes Welker. You want to talk about gamers who play through injury and then some? Here's the real deal.
His mere presence was enough to have fans and local press admiring his resilience in preseason week two, just over six months removed from knee and shoulder surgery. Today, Welker forced the league at large to recognize his full recovery. His two-TD regular-season debut (after so many clutch games for him last year in which he went without a touchdown catch) also included a series of key third-down conversions in the third and fourth quarter, cementing both the Patriots victory and his continued place as a linchpin of this team.
Meanwhile, Welker was just one part of an offensive unit that put in a great performance today. In particular, the Patriots have developed a new emphasis on the tight end. During the first half of today's game, tight ends in unusual formations before the snap totally bewildered Cincinatti's defense, which ultimately put the Bengals in a hole they couldn't climb out of, despite their much-improved second half.
The first touchdown in the first quarter demonstrated the role both Welker and the tight ends played in the offensive game plan for the Patriots. "Look at this formation," said Jim Nantz before the play began, calling attention to a lineup that had Moss wide right, a tight end to the right side, one back directly behind Brady, Rob Gronkowski wide left, and Wes Welker stacked behind Alge Crumpler in the left slot.
The Bengals had four linemen, a cornerback playing Moss deep, two linebackers, and four more defensive backs over the top, who drifted toward the strange confab of Welker, Gronkowski and Crumpler before the play, but tentatively.
The ball was snapped. Brady threw a quick pass to Welker. By the time the Cincinatti DBs committed to the play, Gronkowski and Crumpler were there to block them. Welker had no problem darting through the hole they opened into the end zone. The Gillette crowd ate up that sight with a spoon.
Defense sharp in first half, weaker later
It's a good thing the offense was so high-octane. If the entire game had gone the way of the first half, I might be dismissing my preseason defensive worries for now, but the complexion of things changed a bit in the third quarter.
In the first half, the Bengals didn't convert a third down until there were just over 8 minutes left in the second quarter. When they weren't being forced to punt, the Patriots snatched the ball away a bit more rudely, with one fumble recovery and one interception returned for a touchdown. At halftime, the Bengals had converted just two of seven third downs; and scored 3 points.
Carson Palmer and TO had tried to pick on Patriots rookie cornerback Devin McCourty in that first half, who stepped up and held his own against the willowy Owens. This included a thwarted touchdown attempt in the end zone in the second quarter.
In the second half, the Patriots brought persistent pressure against Palmer, but at times this left them vulnerable to Ochocinco at a medium depth across the middle-- times like Cincinnati's third-quarter, seven-minute, 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Ochocinco and Cedric Benson carried the Bengals down the field, and they capped off the drive with a touchdown to Jermaine Gresham, who played it pretty nonchalant for the first score of his NFL career.
The Patriots offense also had its lapses after the half, compounding the Bengals' long scoring drive in the third quarter with an abortive drive, which ended after a third down conversion was negated by Mankins substitute Dan Connolly's penalty for holding.
After that, Cincinnati picked up right where it had left off, driving back down the field again. This time, Ochocinco beat Darius Butler for the TD. It was not the first time Butler had been burned, or the last; Butler was out of his league against Ochocinco. He managed to break up one pass to the mouthy wideout with a desperate, World-Cup-goalie dive, but otherwise was schooled by Ochocinco for six points in the third quarter, and again for a key first down on the next Bengals possession in the fourth quarter.
If both halves had been like the first, it would've been a total Patriots blowout. If both halves had been like the second half, the Patriots wouldn't have won.
- Aside from Connolly's poorly-timed penalty, the offensive line coped well without Mankins or Nick Kaczur.
- Tom Brady continues to be a dreamboat, and I'm still not even remotely talking about his hair. He showed no ill effects from his car accident earlier this week, or sluggishness from overcelebrating his new contract. Today he had a power pitcher's pinpoint location and velocity, pinning the ball to Welker's chest, laying it into Gronkowski's arms over the head of a pursuing defender for a touchdown in the third quarter, and using seven different receivers, including the tight ends.
Haters gonna hate, but I say let's hear it for a pro football player who busts his ass even after receiving a huge payday, and who manages to get in and out of a traffic 'incident' without a DUI, a gun, a hooker, a domestic dispute, or a concussion being involved, and without being found in possession of illegal narcotics, or even being held liable legally. (And yet this didn't totally prevent scandal -- Brady's car's New Jersey tags prompted some spirited discussion on the ol' Intertubes, and fanned the flames of the ongoing controversy over his coiffure.)
- Patrick Chung was a defensive standout, especially in the first half. He delivered ringing hits on Cedric Benson and showed his nose for the ball, in on most tackles and nearly always turning up at the bottom of the pile. He also showed an aggressive trash-talk game, jawing with Gresham in the fourth quarter (which was broken up by Ochocinco).
- Vince Wilfork delivered some crushing hits on Palmer, and Mike Wright was a frequent burr in the QB's saddle. I even saw my 2009 favorite Myron Pryor break through the line a couple of times. Thanks to the havoc wreaked by the defensive line, the Patriots had more chances for turnovers today than they were able to capitalize on -- there were several dropped deflections and potential interceptions.