Bill Belichick raved all week about Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Truth be told, Atkins hasn't been as good as he can be this season. But he showed up this Sunday. On second-and-6, Patriots left tackle Nate Solder completely missed his mark and Atkins got free; he buried Tom Brady in the backfield for a loss of 8 yards. New England, as we've seen too many times already this season, couldn't convert the long yardage situation and went three-and-out.
SHORTEST DRIVE (REVISED)
When was the last time the Patriots started a game with two three-and-outs… on offense? Sure, patience has been required for Brady with his new group of pass catchers, but the offensive line hasn't been a problem. When Brady took his second sack in two drives, for yet another loss of 8, it looked like Solder was indeed a problem. This time, the tackle let Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry through to take Brady down. The series lasted one minute and 48 seconds.
WORST POSSIBLE DECISION
Oh, Andy Dalton. What're you doing, man? The Bengals were driving at the end of the first quarter; Dalton got his team to New England's 9-yard line with six first downs in seven plays. The decision making? Solid. So why in the hell, on second-and-7, did he throw the ball directly into the arms of Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes? Yes, Dalton was on the run, being hunted down by defensive tackle Chris Jones. But he had other options than handing Spikes his first regular season interception since 2010. Throw the ball away. Run it out of bounds. Take the sack. Anything, anything else would have worked but what Dalton actually did.
QUICKEST LOSS OF TRUST
This past week, LeGarrette Blount talked about the larger workload he's had lately: "If you get to play, [Belichick] trusts you. If you're not playing, there's either something you're doing or they don't trust you. I'm playing so I feel like they trust me." With lead back Stevan Ridley sidelined by injury, Blount got the lion's share of carries Sunday, with 9 to Brandon Bolden's 1 in the second quarter. But he got stripped. Not only did Blount fumble, he lost the ball on the first drive New England took over the 50-yard line. Bolden started the next series.
LEAST EXPECTED NAME CONFUSION
It's not unusual to see Jones barreling down on a quarterback. What is unusual is a signal caller getting sacked by Chris, not Chandler, Jones. The 23-year old D-lineman's first NFL game was last weekend, in Atlanta. Bet he didn't think he'd record his first sack just seven days later. "Chr. Jones" overpowered Bengals offensive tackle Andre Smith and sat Dalton down on second-and-9, stalling a drive that seemed headed for the end zone.
SUREST HANDS: DEFENSE
Aqib Talib is a a ballhawk. End of story. Dalton was barely treading water after halftime and threw two incomplete passes to two sure targets in Tyler Eifert and A.J. Green. It was do or die time on third-and-10 and Dalton looked to Green again. Talib turned toward the pass at the perfect time and skied to break up its flight path. Another incomplete. Bengals were forced to punt.
Two of the busiest guys in this game? Both punters. The score was still knotted up at 3 with almost six minutes left to play in the third quarter. Some of that had to do with good defense, some of it had to do with bad offense. Regardless, Ryan Allen and Kevin Huber combined for 11 punts in the game. Allen had a 45-yard average and Huber was right behind with 43. At least somebody was getting work done.
Patriots desperate on third-and-10 on their own 42-yard line. Brady was sacked by Atkins faster than you can say "Someone please score." Fortunately for New England, Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap moved offsides and the refs flagged it. Even more fortunately, for Cincinnati, the Patriots couldn't do diddily on the third-and-5 opportunity and were forced to punt. Again.
FASTEST EMOTIONAL ROLLER COASTER
The Bengals were driving at the start of the fourth quarter. Nothing the Patriots defense hadn't handled before, right? Even without starting nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tear in Atlanta, New England's 'D' held up well enough to keep Cincinnati to three points. Then Tommy Kelly went down. The starting tackle was on his back, clutching his right knee in obvious pain. He went to the sideline. The Bengals ended up scoring on the drive, but the idea of Kelly suffering some brutal knee injury hurt worse. Good thing he came back two minutes later, right? Well, yeah, but then he left again with that knee injury. We'll keep a close eye on how he looks after the game.
BIGGEST OPPORTUNITY WASTED
It could have been the touchdown pass Julian Edelman dropped with six and a half minutes left in regulation. If he had hung on, it would have been a beautiful catch to put the Patriots within 3. Yet somehow, things got worse. Cincinnati running back Giovani Bernard fumbled on his team's ensuing drive and gave New England another chance. The ensuing drive: Incomplete pass; incomplete pass; Brady sack. Just awful.