FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - The Patriots, as they always seem to do against the Bengals, responded in vintage fashion to two unanswered touchdowns Sunday when they kept the ball for the first 7:19 of the fourth quarter in a 14-play drive capped by quarterback Tom Brady's one-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski that upped the New England lead to 38-17.
Bengals running back Cedric Benson punched it in from a yard out with 3:57 remaining to cut the deficit to 38-24 but the Bengals were called for illegal touching on the ensuing onside kick when Michael Johnson recovered the ball before it went the required 10 yards, sealing the win for New England.
It was the most points the Bengals had allowed in an opener since 1991 and a 45-14 loss in Denver.
After a brutal first 30:12 of the season that included Brandon Tate's 97-yard kick return to open the second half, two third-quarter touchdown passes by quarterback Carson Palmer cut the Patriots lead to 31-17 heading into the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium.
Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco beat cornerback Darius Butler one-on-one down the left sideline and Palmer floated a 28-yard touchdown pass with 22 seconds left in the third quarter. That tied The Ocho with Carl Pickens for the franchise lead with 63 career touchdown catches.
But it was one of those games that wasn't clear which unit came out flatter.
The Bengals offense and defense had to share the blame as the Bengals fell behind, 24-0, with just two first downs and no rushing yards. By the time Patriots quarterback Tom Brady found wider receiver Wes Welker threading through the middle for a four-yard touchdown pass on third down for a 17-0 lead, the Bengals defense had allowed five plays longer than 20 yards.
Special teams also took some blame because on the second half's opening kickoff, Tate, the Pats rookie wide receiver, picked up a rolling, bouncing kick at his 3 and took it up the middle for a 97-yard kick return that made it a stunning 31-3 disaster.
The offense also gave up a big one when Palmer dropped back on first down and tried to hit rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham on a short route over the middle. Linebacker Gary Guyton was all over Gresham and Palmer tried to put it to the outside when Guyton caught it and went 59 yards down the left sideline for a what-the-heck-hit-us-24-0-deficit. The Bengals had gone to the no-huddle in that series and had moved from their 20 to the Pats 48 (the big pay an 11-yard throw to running back Cedric Benson) before the pick.
The misery continued when the next snap from scrimmage got fumbled, but the Bengals recovered.
After Palmer's bid to hit wide receiver Terrell Owens in the end zone as he worked against safety Patrick Chung down the right sideline was defused when Chung got his hands on it first, and Mike Nugent got the Bengals on the board with 1:15 left in the half on a 54-yard field goal to make the halftime score 24-3. It was the second longest field goal in club history as it took Nugent less than a half to better Shayne Graham's long of 53 in the previous seven seasons.
The half could only end like this: With both Owens and Ochocinco in the locker room when there was one second left after the Pats' failed 56-yard attempt, Palmer's 51-yard Hail Mary to rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley was three yards short of the end zone.
The stat sheet held the carnage. The Bengals had just 156 yards at the half, 28 from Benson while Owens had five catches for 30 yards and The Ocho two for 23. Most of Palmer's 130 yards came on the fling to Shipley as he finished the half 12-of-19 for a 61 passer rating. Meanwhile, Brady sifted the Bengals at 112.8 and 178 yards. But the stunning stat on a stunning day was the Pats' seven yards per run on 10 carries.
All anyone had to do was look at that last, clinching fourth-quarter drive. Pats wide receiver Wes Welker looked like he had never been lost to a blown ACL. Working against cornerback Leon Hall in the slot, Welker converted a third down on an 11-yard completion slithering through the middle and on the next third down out of a bunch formation Welker got Hall out on the perimeter one-on-one and beat him to the stick.
Although the offense and special teams each gave up a touchdown, it was a shockingly under-achieving effort by a Bengals defense that finished fourth in the NFL last season.
The Ocho became the 33rd player in NFL history (and sixth with one team) to go over 10,000 yards when he caught a 19-yard pass over the middle early in the third quarter as Palmer pinballed around the pocket. Then a few plays later Gresham bookended the effort when he caught his first NFL touchdown pass on a one-yard flip with safety James Sanders hanging off him in the back of the end zone to make it 31-10 with 7:54 left in the third quarter. Defensive tackle Domata Peko was also in the route after lining up as a fullback.
Palmer kept grinding despite the score. He scrambled out of the pocket for seven yards and took a hard shot from cornerback Devin McCourty in the side of the bread basket on the sideline as he went through the air out of bounds.
About five minutes after The Ocho hit his milestone, Owens became the third man to hit 15,000 receiving yards when he slid over the middle for a 13-yard catch with Palmer hanging in against an unblocked corner blitz.
Also in the third quarter, Bengals WILL linebacker Keith Rivers left with a foot injury and did return.
The Pats went up, 17-0, with 8:58 left in the half when the Bengals couldn't figure out how to get pressure on Brady. On third-and-six a four-man rush allowed Brady to pat the ball forever until Tate got wide open on the right side for a 20-yard catch. Then on a Bengals blitz Brady found wide receiver Randy Moss one-on-one with cornerback Johnathan Joseph on a short route on the outside. Moss then muscled past him with a shake and took off on a 32-yard play that was mostly run after catch.
Then on another third-down, Brady patted the ball again, sidestepped, and found running back Kevin Faulk on the sidelines for a 21-yard catch to set up the four-yard TD flip to Welker.
The Patriots, who were supposed to have an invisible running game, did what the Bengals were supposed to do and pounded the ball for a 10-0 lead and then went for the jugular with the defense when they dumped Benson to force a fumble at the Bengals 28 as the first quarter and Sunday's opener rapidly slipped away.
Benson had no place to go as three Pats were unblocked on the left edge. He avoided the first one, but got hit by outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich and he forced the fumble that he recovered on a 10-yard loss that resulted in no points when Stephen Gostkowski missed a 47-yarder.
On their second series Pats running back Fred Taylor gouged the Bengals on a 24-yard run aided by missed tackles at linebacker and safety and Gostkowski hit a 32-yarder to make it 10-0.
It took Brady just 5:13 into the new season to catch the Bengals napping on their first series with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Welker.
With Welker split wide to Brady's left with two other receivers and the Bengals countering with just cornerbacks Hall and Adam Jones, Welker went in untouched on a short screen.
The play was set up when the Bengals blew coverage on a 45-yard pass to uncovered rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez on his left sideline.
The first Bengals series ended on a sack on third-and-two when the Pats worked a stunt inside with outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain and end Myron Pryor. The Bengals did get a 14-yard pass to Owens on the second play after McCourty knocked a deep ball away from Owens.
The second Bengals series was worse. After a nine-yard screen to Ochocinco, Benson lost a yard when he got pushed to the left edge and on third down Palmer hurried a pass against the blitz and overthrew tight end Daniel Coats in the flat.
The Bengals couldn't get their top 10 running game going against the revamped Pats defense. Benson had no yards on his first six carries and they couldn't take advantage of New England's young secondary. On a third-and-five after Gostkowski's miss, Butler came up to stop Owens well shy of the first down.
Bengals defensive end Jon Fanene, who had a hamstring issue last week in practice, left with a right hamstring injury after he got taken down on a rush and his return was questionable.
PREGAME NOTES: Wide receiver Andre Caldwell's groin problem kept him out Sunday's opener here against the Patriots. Also not dressed were running back Brian Leonard (foot) and defensive linemen Pat Sims and Carlos Dunlap, as well as cornerback Brandon Ghee.
The Patriots had a key inactive with running back Laurence Maroney on the shelf.
Also down for the Bengals were a pair of rookies, linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy and center-guard Reggie Stephens. They had to go one short on the defensive line with Leonard's injury and the run-stopping Sims was a casualty with the Patriots a throwing team. With Ghee out with his concussion from the Aug. 28 preseason game in Buffalo, the Bengals are down to four cornerbacks.