FOXBORO, Mass - It was Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's Homecoming but it was his Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski who went to town Sunday at Gillette Stadium and doused the Bengals' bid for an upset with 162 career-high yards on seven catches in a 35-17 victory.
The Bengals fell to 2-4 for the first time in six years even though for the first 45 minutes they delivered a stout effort with a chance to win where no one wins. But Brady lifted his home record to 113-15 with a devastating 15 points in 4:07 late in the third quarter on his way to a 376-yard day, three touchdowns and a 140 passer rating on 29 of 35 dart throwing.
It didn't start out that way (Brady had just 136 yards at the half and Gronkowski 41), but mistakes wore the Bengals away. They failed to score a TD on fourth-and-one from the 1 down 3-0. A holding penalty wiped out a first down when they were leading 14-10, and cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones were called for penalties on third downs that led to 10 points.
That's why they say the Patriots never beat themselves.
The Bengals defense followed up wide receiver Brandon LaFell's own Homecoming of a five-yard touchdown catch on third down that gave them a 14-10 lead on the first drive of the second half with a third sack of Brady that forced a punt.
With the Bengals seemingly confounding Brady with different coverages, the Patriots failed on four of their first five third downs and you could hear a pin drop in the place when Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton got a first down with a great throw while scrambling to his right and a sliding catch from wide receiver A.J. Green at about the Bengals 30.
But then the game changed. Bengals right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi was called for a hold, wiping out the play and earning him a seat on the bench. Then on the next snap Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower came up the middle on a delayed blitz and no one picked him up and his sack of Dalton for a safety cut the Bengals' lead to 14-12 with 7:05 left in the third quarter.
Up to that point the Bengals had done a good job keeping Gronkowski and fellow tight end Martellus Bennett in check, but no more. Bennett was wide open over the middle for 24 yards for his first catch and when the Bengals picked up a blitz cornerback Josh Shaw didn't stay with Gronkowski steaming down the middle for 38 yards on his way to a back-to-back 100-yard day. The Pats went ahead with five minutes left in the third quarter, 19-14, when Gronkowski bodied up cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick for a four-yard TD catch.
Then with Ogbuehi on the bench, end Jabal Sheard sliced inside the right side to bat down Dalton's second-down pass on a three-and-out and after a 37-yard punt gave the Pats a break Brady went to his tight ends again. Gronkowski beat linebacker Vontaze Burfict on an out and up for 39 yards and Bennett caught an 11-yarder over the middle to set up running back James White's four-yard TD catch leaking out of the backfield beating linebacker Karlos Dansby with 2:09 left in the third quarter.
That made it 25-14, meaning the Pats had stunned them for 15 points in 4:07.
And the second half started so well with Dalton, in the midst of a mega game completing 20 of his first 29 throws for 245 yards, converting two third downs on the first drive. On third-and-eight he hit wide receiver A.J. Green for 23 yards beating a safety across the middle for 23 yards, his second grab of the day in the plus-20 zone.
Then from the 5 he hit LaFell, the former Patriot, running to the back of the end zone against cornerback Malcolm Butler. Dalton finished 21 of 31 for 254 yards and a 103.4 rating,
The Bengals were one snap away from tacking on to a 7-3 lead with about 2:30 left in the first half when Kirkpatrick gave Brady the dreaded reprieve and a first down on third-and-18 when he was called for illegal contact.
Brady promptly hit his next five passes and the last two accounted for 54 yards and the Patriots' 10-7 half-time lead when James White walked in untouched against Dansby on a 15-yard flare pass with 61 seconds left in the half.
Up until those last two snaps, the Bengals defense had stepped up in a nice effort in front of a Gillette Stadium throng saluting their Tommy's Homecoming. Brady had to set up in the pocket much of the half and was sacked twice in missing four of his first 11 passes while managing just 69 yards.
In fact, it was a sack that set up the third-and-18 from Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict blitzing up the middle. But Brady attacked a zone for 39 yards when wide receiver Chris Hogan beat linebacker Karlos Dansby across the middle. Then Dansby couldn't keep up with White out of the backfield as Brady suddenly finished the half 12 of 16 for 136 yards.
Dalton kept pace with a blistering 13 of 16 for 143 yards and the Bengals rebounded from a fourth-down stop on the goal line earlier in the second quarter to take a 7-3 lead on Dalton's two-yard option keep left with 3:10 left in the first half.
Dalton, who hit 13 of his first 14 passes, threw gems of 22 and 14 yards to wide receiver A.J. Green (56 yards on four catches in the first half) to get the Bengals back to the 2 and Dalton wasted no time calling his own number on first down.
Dalton got the 22-yarder on third-and-six when Green got behind cornerback Malcolm Butler down the left sideline and Dalton dropped a dime. A few snaps later in the red zone, Dalton drilled Green in stride coming across the congested red zone for the 14-yarder.
The Bengals defense was huge all half until the last series and set up the touchdown when tackle Pat Sims sacked Brady to force the punt and put the Bengals at their own 40 to start the drive.
The Bengals came out OK after a tough sequence when they couldn't get a yard.
That was the story of the first half as Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis gambled on fourth-and-1 from the Patriots 1 with about nine minutes left and the Pats leading, 3-0.
The Bengals deployed nose tackle Domata Peko as the fullback in front of running back Giovani Bernard and sent him left behind Peko but he got wrapped up the right side of the Pats' line before he could get any kind of momentum. They had the same formation on second down but got stoned when they had the same formation but Peko missed the block on linebacker Elandon Roberts. On third down, Dalton tried a quick fade to Green matched up on Butler on the left side, but it was too far in on Butler and he got a hand on it.
The Bengals got down there on a huge third-and-eight when they split out Bernard and he baked linebacker Barkevious Mingo down the right sideline for a 32-yard play.
The Bengals did a great job in coverage most of the half, forcing Brady to hold the ball longer than he wanted. They let tight end Rob Gronkowski (two catches for 41 yards in the half) get loose just once on a first series they got good pressure on Brady from their four-man front. On second down Brady had to step up in the pocket and hold the ball. Dansby had him blanketed initially, but Gronkowski used the extra time to get behind him for a 32-yard gain.
But the defense stepped up on second down from their 30. Brady got chased and ran out of bounds for a two-yard pickup and on third down Brady again got heat and threw it away with left end Carlos Dunlap chasing Brady down. That set up Stephen Gostkowski's 46-yard field goal 2:54 into the game.
PREGAME NOTES: With the Bengals as healthy as they've been all year, tight end Tyler Eifert led head coach Marvin Lewis' expected inactive list Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
The biggest inactive of the day belonged to the Patriots when they iced Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins.
Those not lining up against the Patriots have been inactive for at least four games this year. Joining Eifert were wide receiver Cody Core, defensive tackle DeShawn Williams, guard Christian Westermann, quarterback Jeff Driskell, and cornerbacks Chykie Brown and KeiVarae Russell.
They go into this one expecting a buzz saw with the Gillette crowd inflated by the return of quarterback Tom Brady in his first home game since coming off the NFL-imposed sanction for DeflateGate. The Bengals have their own saw in trying to avoid falling to 2-4 for the first time since 2010. The only Bengals club to survive such a start to reach the playoffs was the 1970 team that won the AFC Central at 8-6 after a 1-6 start.
Cincinnati Bengals travel to take on the New England Patriots in week 6 of the regular season.