Once they got down 14-0 Sunday night, the Bengals couldn't exploit running back Giovani Bernard on the ground.
FOXBORO, Mass. - It was a showcase game where their showcase talent got overshadowed by the other team's marquee players.
While wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton struggled to get into a rhythm Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady rarely missed his big-play shots in a vintage clutch effort that brought his team off the ropes with 292 yards and a 110.7 passer rating against a defense that had been allowing an NFL-low 56 rating to passers.
While the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (100 yards) and tight-end tag-team partner Tim Wright added 85, Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham dropped a perfect touchdown pass and one other ball while finishing with just two catches for 15 yards.
While five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis held the three-time Pro Bowler Green relatively in check with three catches for 55 yards before he left with a hamstring injury with 3:48 left in the third quarter, Bengals two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and his line couldn't contain a Patriots running attack that allowed a stunning 220 yards, the most since they gave up 221 on the ground to the Ravens in the last game of 2011.
Now the Bengals are again trying to follow the elite with a bounce-back victory next Sunday at 1 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium against the Panthers after Brady lifted his record to 37-8 following a loss. Since Marvin Lewis became the Bengals head coach in 2003, the Patriots are now 35-5 following a loss.
(And if history plays out, the Bengals are going to the Super Bowl. The last time they were the last NFL unbeaten, it was the Patriots that knocked them out of the ranks here in Foxboro in 1988.)
"The truth is the Patriots have lost 40 some games since 2003, but they've responded and won the games the next week," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "If we want to be a championship team and a top team in this league, how we respond is more important than what happened tonight."
Green, who never quit trying to find a way with five catches for 81 yards, pretty much said the same thing on the other side of the could-hear-a-pin-drop locker room.
"It's frustrating, but you can't let it get to you," Green said after his team's record dropped to 2-8 in the big moments of prime time and playoffs. "We play up and down sports. You can't be perfect every night. Our night is just not prime time night but we have to correct it. If we want to be that great team, we have to play on big stages, but I don't think that's the problem."
Green's struggles on Sunday mirrored his team's. He got behind Revis enough that Dalton could have hit him for some big plays. But one was underthrown when Green had a step on him down the right sideline even though Revis was called for illegal contact. Another was thrown out of bounds too long. Another went too long when Dalton got some pressure from left end Rob Ninkovich on the right edge of the pocket.
And when Dalton did get the ball to him, Green fumbled after a 19-yard completion late in the first half at the Bengals 25 that turned into a field goal and a 20-3 half-time deficit.
"I think that was a momentum shift," Green said. "I felt like we had a drive. I made a good catch across the middle; I thought we could get a field goal out of that at least. But we got zero points and we gave them three points.
"I was fighting," Green said. "He had my legs and the ball came out."
The game was actually lost when they gave the Pats 14 points on their first two drives in the game's first 11:48 and all they got was a short 52-yard field goal try from Mike Nugent.
"It changed the whole game for us. It became a protection game. Throw it a bunch and see what happens," Whitworth said. "We make the field goal and it's 7-3. Both teams score on their first drives. Instead it goes the other way. You get in a hole against them in their place, like in Pittsburgh, and it's tough."
There were problems from the get-go. The defense looked flat-footed against Brady's up-tempo pace and the Bengals never established a running game on the edge, where New England was so vulnerable six days before in Kansas City.
"They came out hot and ready to go and you could tell this was a game they were prepared for and knew you were going to get," Whitworth said. "That's the team they've been for a long time. It has never lost a second game. That's why. Because they fight. They came out and wanted it more than we did at the beginning. You know it's going to happen at some point. You just have to respond. We felt like we started to turn it around, we just couldn't get any momentum to turn it around all the way."
The Bengals looked like they were back in it, thanks to Adam Jones' now-you-see-him-now-you-don't 47-yard punt return that set up Dalton's perfect 37-yard touchdown bomb to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu that cut it to 20-10 early in the second half.
That came after the Bengals forced Brady into a third-and-21 when Peko and defensive linemen Wallace Gilberry dumped running back Shane Vereen for a three-yard loss after a catch.
But the center did not hold. The Pats promptly responded with another touchdown on a drive that featured only one third down. And it was a killer. It looked like the Pats were out of field goal range and here come the Bengals and…Except, Vereen broke a draw for 19 yards on third-and-16 and…
"Anytime you get 43 points on you, that really hurts you. Believe me; we're going to fix it. That's the thing we take pride in around here," Peko said. "If we have a problem, we'll find out what it is and fix it. It's really frustrating. You really want to go and ball out on Sunday, Monday night in these prime-time games. We're 3-I. It'll be good to go back in "The Jungle," and try to get on the right track."
And then former Patriot Brandon Tate fumbled the ensuing kickoff and cornerback Kyle Arrington cashed it for a nine-yard touchdown return and a 34-10 lead.
"If I can catch the ball in the front without backing up, Coach said I can take it," Tate said. "I just have to hold onto the ball and that is about it. I just have to hold onto the ball if I am going to take that chance."
The Bengals are holding on to what they just endured. Feeling the wrath of an embarrassed team. They hope they can make the Panthers feel it next week.
"We will. I have a lot of faith in our team, a lot faith in our players and coaches," Peko said. "We have a lot of pride on this team and we're going to bounce back and not let this happen again."