Pats receiver Wes Welker gashed the Bengals defense for two touchdowns. (AP photo)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - OK, late night TV hosts. Cue the cue cards.
The biggest hit Patriots quarterback Tom Brady took this week was at a Boston intersection in his Thursday car accident instead of in the pocket against the Bengals defense Sunday as Brady put up the most points against Cincinnati in a stretch of 25 games dating back to Oct. 19, 2008.
And defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer seethed. Cornerback Leon Hall pondered. Safety Chris Crocker vented after the 38-24 loss that came out of 2008 instead of last year and the AFC North title.
Maybe the Bengals had put too many Xs and Os instead of not enough.
"I think at end of the first half, we were like deer in the headlights," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "Our eyes were wide open. We were worried about so many different things we weren't playing fast."
The proud Bengals defense that had scratched from No. 27 to No. 12 to No. 4 in the previous two seasons under Zimmer and was supposed to be the foundation of a Super Bowl run, stood dazed in the visitors locker room after the Patriots rolled them so thoroughly on this Opening Day that the first six times New England had the ball it either scored or missed a field goal.
This was pre-Zimmer ineptitude. In only one game last year did the Bengals not have at least sack or at least one interception and that was in the throwaway finale in Jersey. In only two games last year did they allow the three touchdown passes Brady had Sunday. And when running back Fred Taylor gashed the Bengals defense for a 24-yard run early in the onslaught, it was only the third time in the last 15 games they allowed a run so long.
The Pats offensive line, missing holdout guard Logan Mankins and injured tackle Nick Kaczur, didn't bink and looked as good as new.
"We played extremely tentative; I was disappointed in that part of the game" said Zimmer in a Gillette Stadium hallway, upset by the lack of discipline in the face of Brady's icy efficiency. "The secondary played tentative. The defensive line played undisciplined and the linebackers made just enough mistakes. We missed so many tackles."
Mind blowing, really that the Bengals would offer such a stinker. Every starter is back from a unit that finished sixth in scoring defense while allowing 18 points per game.
"We weren't ourselves," Hall said.
"Everybody is," said Crocker when asked if he was surprised at the enormity of the defeat. "They really beat us. Flat out. That was last year. Right now, we're not very good (on defense). We couldn't get may stops and we couldn't get off (the field) on third down."
Brady might have hit the deck once after he threw it. Maybe. Other than that he had so much time he was patting the ball as his multiple receivers in the spread had ample time to find nooks and crannies. Zimmer knew he couldn't blitz Brady that much because he gets rid of it so quickly. So a lot of times he was relying on a four-man rush that got no push.
"We can't have him back there patting the ball and looking for receivers all day," Peko said. "We have to go back and look at it and clean it up."
And when the Bengals did blitz, they gave up huge plays. The Bengals busted coverage on rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez's 45-yard catch in the wide-open on the first drive and wide receiver Randy Moss turned a seven-yard quick-hitter into a 32-yarder when cornerback Johnathan Joseph whiffed on the tackle.
"That's a good front, too, with (Robert) Geathers and (Antwan) Odom and the blitz packages they run," Brady said. "I thought we did a good job handling the blitz and I think what happened was we hit some big plays on the blitz early so it slowed them down a little bit."
Zimmer second-guessed some of his own calls.
"I was ready to blitz," Zimmer said. "A few times (Brady) saw it coming and he threw the ball to the outside and on a screen. They had a lot of different formations that weren't real conducive (to blitzing). I was probably tentative on some of my calls. We had so much time to prepare and we put so many things in, I think we kind of forgot about doing what we do, which we're good at."
The Bengals corners, usually so good at getting up in the grill of receivers and contesting everything, were uncharacteristically passive. Joseph and Leon Hall didn't play like one of the NFL's leading corner tandems. On Brady's last drive, a 14-play grind job that consumed more than seven minutes in the fourth quarter, he didn't complete a pass longer than 12 yards.
"Today was really unacceptable," Hall said. "Say what you want to say but we want to put that responsibility on the DBs. There should always be a DB around. We put that on our shoulders."
On that final drive, with the Bengals closing to 31-17 in the last minute of the third quarter, Brady shut the door with two killing third-down throws in the slot to wide receiver Wes Welker, looking nothing like a guy coming back from a shredded ACL. He caught eight balls for just 64 yards, but two were for touchdowns and two converted third downs with the clock ticking. The last one, a third-and-four from the Bengals 31, Hall let Welker get leverage outside him on the perimeter and he took a dump pass for 12 yards straight to the stick.
"I know I'm going to look at that and know I should have played it better," Hall said. "That's the guy they want to go to on third down, especially when they want to keep the ball."
Except for the 32-yarder, the Bengals did what they wanted to do with Moss. They kept him from going long. His other four catches accounted for 27 yards.
"How many catches did Moss get?" Zimmer wondered. "We were trying not to let him (get big plays). Welker is a handful. We tried to kind of double him. He's good. He executed beautifully."
Peko thought back to last year and the four-game winning streak after last year's Opening Day loss to Denver.
"We've been in this situation before," Peko said. "We went on a run. You never want to lose, but we know how to come back. We'll be fine."
But like Hall said, while that 12-7 whacky loss in the last 11 seconds to Denver 364 days before was crushing, this one was even worse.
"This one feels a little worse if you could really imagine that," Hall said. "At least we played a lot better on defense (last year). We put a lot of expectations on ourselves and we didn't play well. We have to just forget about it over the next couple of days."