You're in your kitchen and you've set out to mop your floor. You put the bucket in the sink and turn the hot water on. You turn around to grab your mop, but during the spin, you knock over the olive oil and it spills onto the counter. This is a critical moment. You need a towel; you have one. You begin to wipe up the oil when you hear the hot water splattering onto the floor. You throw the towel on the stove and rush to turn off the water. The oily towel ignites from the stove-top burner. You hurry over to put out the small fire when you slip from the wetness on the ground and break your tailbone. Ouch!
That was the Bengals on Sunday. Their small mistakes compounded rapidly to crush the enthusiasm of their fans by the heavy booted sole of the New England Patriots. It happened so fast, we were so sure of ourselves, how could this happen?
The answer lies in the third-down conversion column of the game's stat sheet—particularly in the first half. If you combine the two of seven third-down opportunities in the first half compared to the Patriots’ six of eight, it adds up to the Bengals changing the game to their favor four out of a possible 15 times. Throw in two turnovers and it only spells out disaster, and the Bengals were served heaping spoonfuls of that on Sunday.
The first Bengals' drive was killed on a third and two when that monstrosity, Vince Wilfork, spin-moved past Kyle Cook, sacking Carson Palmer. The second was ruined by an errant short pass to Dan Coates (?!) on another third and two. The next drive ended abruptly on a Cedric Benson fumble when Cincinnati native Mike Wright came inexplicably unblocked and disrupted the play in the backfield. Next drive ended on a pass well short of the marker to Terrell Owens on third and six. The next was a pick-six to Gary Guyton. In a flash, things went from bad to worse.
Meanwhile, the defense was unraveling faster than spin art, yet, despite the Bengals inability to get off of their blocks or make sure-tackles, the Patriots were still forced into a good amount of third down chances themselves. The highly-touted Bengals defense led by field general, Mike Zimmer, looked tentative and strangely weak, and when they had the opportunity to keep things close and get off the field, they failed.
After avoiding third downs on their first touchdown drive, the Patriots converted two out of three chances on the second and wound up with a field goal, giving them a 10-point lead. The Bengals then stopped them on third down after Benson's fumble and were saved by a missed field goal. At that point, the game was on the verge of being lost but not unmanageable; hope still existed. But then Brady converted three third downs on the next drive, the last being a touchdown to Welker over the middle, which gave New England a three possession lead and all of the game's momentum.
Then, late in the game when Cincinnati somehow created a glimmer of hope for themselves to get back in the game, the defense allowed three more third-down conversions and watched Rob Gronkowski catch a touchdown pass over the stumbling Dhani Jones. Game over.
There were some watered-down positives. Jermaine Gresham, Jordan Shipley and Terrell Owens fulfilled my expectations to how they will serve this offense, and Chad Ochocinco looks sharp. The pass-protection wasn't horrendous and the penalties were kept to a minimum. Struggling with the running game, though, is a grave concern of mine. If this team cannot run on a more consistent basis, Palmer will be baited into more interceptions, and only bad things can happen from that. Last year's surprise story was the quick development of the offensive line, particularly their run blocking, but they were pushed backwards on runs against New England, especially on short downs. Bernard Scott may be able to squeeze out yards if the line doesn't get a push because he is shifty, but Benson needs holes to run through. Asking Cedric Benson to juke his way to daylight is not utilizing his strengths as a running back. In comparison to New England's open running lanes, Cincinnati's looked like a traffic-jam in a dead-end alley.
Another concern is the mass extinction of any pass rush. I thought the Bengals would back away from blitzing—and apparently so did Zimmer—but I think we both expected the front four to make some kind of noise on their own. New England's offensive line was supposed to be a soft spot, but it sure didn't seem that way. Antwan Odom looks hurt to me, and Robert Geathers is still invisible coming around the edge of the pocket. The best hit of the day on Brady came from Geno Atkins who came free on a stunt, but on nearly every other occasion, Brady had no problems allowing routes to unfold and finding open receivers without feeling rushed.
The thing this Bengals team was supposed to have above everything else was a chip on their shoulder, a toughness about them, grit; I didn't see much of that at all in Foxboro. Instead, it was New England who looked stronger, while Cincinnati was relegated to the finesse role—and as I said in this game's preview: finesse is a code word for soft.
Is all hope lost for the season? Of course not—don't be so dramatic. Does this team need to show more teeth? Absolutely yes.
I expect that Zimmer will whip his boys into a wild fever this week where the only prescription is Raven blood (or perhaps more cowbell), while Bob Bratkowski calmly refines his third-down play selections to Mozart and his players meditate and undergo stress-relieving breathing exercises. This sort of preparation seems to suit the personality of each coach's respective units, and whatever translates into winning on third down is fine with me. Just get it done.
Mojokong—ignoring the instructions of how to operate my floatation device, should I need it.