"Thud". That was the sound of the Bengals coming back to the ground with a big reality check in front of a national audience. It could also characterize fans' hopes and expectations about the club in the early part of the year. Either way, Sunday evening in Foxboro was an embarrassment for The Queen City cats.
The "statement game" aside, these are the types of games that serve as a litmus test for a young team seemingly heading in the right direction. If you're one to take heavy stock in those kind of examinations, then it would be hard to give the Bengals any other grade than an "F".
In hindsight, it was the perfect storm. If you didn't think that Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Co. were going to come out swinging after being dragged through the mud for a week, then you haven't been paying attention to the NFL for the past fifteen years. The league's lone undefeated team was going to get the best shot on the road by a motivated New England squad. The result? A 43-17 whooping and the AFC's original bad boys showing the young guns what was what.
Andy Dalton: Yes, the fourth-year quarterback struggled on deep throws, particularly to A.J. Green, but Dalton was one of the lone positives for the club on the night. He has been heavily-scrutinized in these types of big games for his woeful performances, but he was efficient and actually was a major reason the team was even close to being back in the game, for a brief moment. Dalton finished the night 15 of 24 for 204 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers. It's an impressive stat line, given the amount of drops and other issues, which plagued the team on Sunday Night.
Rey Maualuga: The embattled middle linebacker was one of the few defensive players who appeared to actually show up in Massachusetts over the weekend. Maualuga was flying around the field making big-time tackles and looked like the player that he once was at USC. Though the unit was sliced and diced by the Patriots offense all evening, he stood out and finished with nine total tackles.
Wallace Gilberry: This one might be a little bit of a reach under "the good", but Gilberry had some solid moments. He was in the backfield a couple of times, had a tackle-for-loss and seven total tackles. Though he has been part of a rotation, Gilberry has been one of the only players to get pressure on the line with any semblance of consistency.
The Classiness Of The Patriots Organization: Even though they were hosting the Bengals and only see them once every couple of years, Bob Kraft and his brain trust made a marvelous gesture to Cincinnati on Sunday Night. The Patriots cheerleaders wore Devon Still's jersey for a bit and they showed a message on the big screen in the stadium in support for Still's recovering daughter, Leah. As if that wasn't enough, Kraft announced that he will be donating $25,000 to pediatric cancer research. Major kudos to that organization.
The Play Of The Wide Receivers: Sure, Mohamed Sanu and Green both caught touchdowns, but both had drops and Green had an incredibly costly fumble. Really, Green only had positive plays once Darrelle Revis wasn't covering him. Dane Sanzenbacher had a fumble of his own and Brandon Tate (yes, technically a receiver) had a fumble as well. Dalton finally showed up in a primetime game and the rest of his crew let him down.
The Offensive Scheme And Confusion: Hue Jackson attempted to employ his tricky, no-huddle offense on the road and, well, it didn't work. The unit often looked confused on where to line up and the noise got to them, making it look like a bit of a circus at times. Though drops and fumbles didn't help, the Bengals got away from their two-headed monster running attack and it hurt them. Giovani Bernard had a decent night with 13 carries for 62 yards (4.8 yards per carry), but Jeremy Hill had two carries which netted a yard. It wasn't the right formula and once the Bengals dug themselves into a hole, Jackson couldn't get them out of it.
The Defensive Line: Everyone was fed the "Patriots Offensive Line is garbage" lines all week going into Sunday Night. They looked like a group of All-Pros against the Bengals' defensive line, giving up only one sack and few pressures. Domata Peko, Geno Atkins and the rest of the crew up front looked like they wore roller skates to the game, as they were frequently pushed back, allowing 220 yards on the ground. That has to get fixed--like, immediately.
Special Teams Gaffes: When you miss a field goal and lose a fumble on a kickoff return on the road, you won't win the game very often. Both happened Sunday night, growing concern for Mike Nugent's erratic play this season and upping the ire for Brandon Tate. The only two reasons why this isn't in the "ugly" category are Adam Jones' long punt return and the fact that Nugent's miss was from more than 50 yards.
Third-Down Conversion Percentage: The Bengals were 0 for seven on third down conversions on Sunday Night. Enough said.
Game-Changing Plays Slipping Through Their Fingers (Literally): The Bengals had chances to get back into the game and swing some momentum back their way. But, in true Bengals primetime fashion, they didn't take advantage. Linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, who has had a solid start to the season, had an interception opportunity, which he also may have been able to return for a touchdown, but couldn't capitalize. Tight end Jermaine Gresham had a beautiful pass go right through his hands midway through the second quarter. As Josh Kirkendall examined on Monday, it would have brought the Bengals to within seven points, along with receiving the kickoff after halftime.
Defending Tight Ends Still An Issue: Though the Bengals' defense has done a better job with this of late, there are still games where the glaring issue is defending the opposition's tight ends. The Patriots have a monster in Rob Gronkowski and he remains their best weapon on offense by a mile. However, another New England tight end created nightmares for the Bengals' defense as well--Tim Wright. With the Bengals having two weeks to prepare for New England, the Patriots tight ends combined for eleven catches, 185 yards and two touchdowns.
Still Can't Shake The "Bengals-In-Primetime" Stigma: Blame who you want and point the fingers at any of those associated with the Bengals, who roamed the sidelines Sunday Night. The Bengals had one turnover in their first three games, but had three in their lone game under the lights. Their star players seem to play super-tight and make boneheaded mistakes in other big games that aren't shown in the national spotlight. Is it simply a coincidence?
It's not that they lose, per se, it's in how they lose. The point differential is massively against them, they look scared and completely unprepared. The worst part? This Bengals team, which was supposed to be different and ranked No. 1 in almost every power ranking list (if you're into that sort of thing), lost by almost four touchdowns. This was their performance after a bye and with the Patriots coming off of a short week? What's to make anyone think that a playoff game would net a different result after this type of performance? Where is the toughness and killer instinct like the Patriots showed on Sunday Night?
I'll leave you with this: Marvin Lewis' winning percentage in these games (depending on which ones you count, etc.) hovers around 25. Pete Carroll, the head coach of a team that the Bengals are being compared to in 2014, is now 11-1 as the Seahawks' coach in primetime affairs.