CINCINNATI -- The losing script looked familiar.
When the New England Patriots' offense has been knocked off track in recent years, the formula is usually the same: Quarterback Tom Brady gets hit early, the offensive line struggles to consistently hold its ground and the critical situations they usually win sway in the other direction.
That’s precisely how things unfolded in Sunday’s 13-6 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Brady was battered early, a sack on the second offensive play setting a tone, as his streak of 52 straight games with at least one touchdown pass was snapped two shy of Drew Brees’ NFL record.
“It’s one of the premier, best quarterbacks in the league. To be able to go out and hit him consistently and get him rattled, it’s a big plus,” Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry said after Brady was sacked four times. In-game statisticians recorded eight hits on him overall. “When you can do that early, it does something to your self-esteem.”
At the same time, this wasn’t all on Brady or the offensive line.
A costly second-quarter fumble by running back LeGarrette Blount, the 10th of his three-plus-year career, and multiple drops by Brady's receivers didn’t help the cause. Three of those drops came in the final 3 minutes, 30 seconds when the Patriots had two chances to drive for a game-tying touchdown, albeit in a driving rainstorm.
Overall, the Patriots were 1-of-12 on third down and they couldn’t punch it in from the 1-yard line on three attempts, settling for a field goal on their one trip inside the Bengals’ red zone.
So one can understand that there was a mix of reaction from Patriots players afterward; in one respect, they credited a talented Bengals defense led by an attacking line, while at the same time lamenting missed opportunities as they turned in their lowest point total since a 21-0 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 10, 2006.
“You can’t expect to kick two field goals and win many games in the NFL,” said Brady, who was held to fewer than 200 passing yards for the second time this season (18-of-38 for 197 yards, 1 INT).
“We can do a better job than that, and we are going to have to if we want to win these games. We had too many silly execution errors and mental mistakes today. It is hard to drive the ball down the field if you keep making those mistakes.”
Even more frustrating for the Patriots was that their defense did its part. Hold a team to 13 points, especially with Brady at quarterback, and it should be a victory.
“The defense played great, as they have all year, and I think we really let them down,” said left guard Logan Mankins, one of the team’s captains. “The truth right now is that we’re so inconsistent offensively.”
The burning question is why, and also if those inconsistencies can be overcome to compete for a championship, which is the standard that’s been set in New England.
The potential return of tight end Rob Gronkowski next Sunday against the 5-0 New Orleans Saints could help. And receiver Danny Amendola, returning for the first time since injuring his groin on Sept. 8, is still on a limited snap count (he was charted as being on the field for 38 of 63 snaps, including penalties).
But for a team that has rallied around the next-man-up theme for more than a decade, to pinpoint Gronkowski and Amendola as primary reasons for offensive inefficiency would be like several of Brady’s passes Sunday -- off the mark. And to the players’ credit, no one was going there.
“They flat out just beat us. Sometimes you have to tip your hat,” receiver Julian Edelman said. “We have no excuses.”
The Bengals did it with a familiar formula that Patriots followers have seen in the past -- batter Brady by winning the battle at the line of scrimmage -- as coach Marvin Lewis later gave coordinator Mike Zimmer a game ball. While the Bengals generated pressure with the standard four rushers, the blitz also was effective, as they sent extra rushers on 12 of Brady’s 41 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, and totaled three of their four sacks with the added pressure.
“For the majority of the game, he was on his back,” Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko said. “Every play, he needed help coming up off the ground.”
When Brady gets knocked down like that, the Patriots usually go down with him.
Yes, this was a familiar script.