The drive began in the worst way for the Patriots--on a kickoff after the Bengals capitalized on a Brady INT for a touchdown. After some frustrating false starts, both literal and figurative, for the Patriots offense, it had looked as if they might be shifting into some kind of rhythm as the second quarter began, having taken a comfortable 10-0 lead on their last possession on a touchdown pass to a linebacker, Mike Vrabel.
It seemed especially cruel that the pass was to a linebacker, considering Cincinnati's already dire linebacker situation heading in to the night's action, which had only gotten worse as the game progressed. Starter Ahmad Brooks was out with an injury to his groin, as was his backup, Caleb Miller. After just the second play of the game, Lemar Marshall was unable to get up, having ruptured his Achilles tendon. The MNF commentators quipped that Cincinnati would "have to take out an ad in the Post to get another [linebacker]."
Later on, the Bengals would lose yet another linebacker, Landon Johnson. That would leave them with two, count 'em, two, linebackers dressed and ready to play. They began to run some funky defensive schemes indeed, with poor Dhani Jones often the only linebacker on the field, a newcomer to the Bengals with only 12 days' experience in their defensive system.
But for the moment, before Johnson went down, it was the Patriots on the defensive, clinging to a three-point lead following an uncharacteristic error by Brady.
The pick sent the ESPN talking heads into a twittering frenzy. "Bengals defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle insisted that his guys were not intimidated by Tom Brady," quoth Suzy Kolber. "Just to ensure that, he put together a tape of all of Brady's mistakes over the last two years: 26 interceptions, 7 fumbles lost. Just to negate the myth that Brady walks on water, they watched it as a group so they could see the evidence he is human. Last series, the rookie, Leon Hall, comes up with the interception. How's that for building confidence?"
Bill Belichick berated Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau on the sidelines. Paul Brown Stadium was deafening, the crowd an eye-straining sea of neon orange.
This morning, I heard people at my office complaining about how the Patriots game had been so non-competitive as to be boring. Maybe they missed the first quarter--after fifteen or so minutes of football, the Patriots certainly looked vulnerable.
Until, that is, the end of their first second-quarter drive.
To set things up, the Patriots ran Sammy Morris nine times en route to another touchdown, eight of those on consecutive plays. There were only three passing plays on the drive, and they saved the best one for last.
Having pounded the Cincinnati defense steadily backwards to the 7, then attempted to run Morris yet again for no gain, the Patriots set up on a 3rd and 4 in the same formation they'd began with the last eight plays in a row. Bengals fans waved orange towels and hollered.
Randy Moss was well covered by Johnathan Joseph, but at 5' 11'', Joseph was no match for Moss's 6' 4''. Moss scooted around behind Joseph as Brady threw the a bullet directly at the Bengals' cornerback. Probably thinking pick, Joseph turned to face the pass coming in, and thus completely missed Moss taking flight behind him. At the last moment, Moss dropped his hands in front of Joseph's face and caught the ball, falling back to earth again for the touchdown just in bounds.
In the ten seconds it took for Moss to be hauled to his feet by Benjamin Watson and join a celebratory throng of his teammates, Paul Brown Stadium went almost totally silent. It literally sounded like the air was being sucked out of the place. After that, neither the crowd nor the Bengals were the same.
The Bengals are a good team this year. Even after last night's game, I still believe that wholeheartedly. I genuinely like a lot of their players, too. Some of them are the best in the business. It's just that this year, friends and neighbors, your New England Patriots are astonishing.