Pats taking command with Palmer out

12-12-04, 3:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

FOXBORO, Mass. _ Weren't the Bengals supposed to go deep against the Patriots' beleaguered secondary and wasn't their turn-over happy defense supposed to rattle the Super Bowl champions here Sunday at Gillette Stadium?

But as so often happens here in New England's den of inequity the Pats turned the tables in a stunning span of 12 seconds that put Cincinnati in a hole halfway through the second quarter on quarterback Tom Brady's 48-yard touchdown pass and cornerback Asante Samuel's 34-yard interception return as the 11-1 Patriots built a 28-14 half-time lead.

With a victory giving old friend Corey Dillon his first playoff berth in eight seasons, the Patriots turned to him for the first two carries of a drive that produced a killing touchdown dive in the final 2:31 of the half.

Adding to the Bengal angst, the Pats took a 35-21 lead late in the third quarter and quarterback Carson Palmer went out with a left knee sprain after a hit in the pocket and was finished for the game as backup Jon Kitna took his first snaps of the season. It was the first time the Bengals made a change at quartrerback during a game since November of 2002 when Kitna briefly left against the Steelers with an injury.

Dillon got 17 yards on the two carries (one helped along by a patented stiff-arm on safety Kevin Kaesviharn as he finished with 47 yards on 11 carries in the half. But it was Brady's continual carving of the secondary that produced backup running back Kevin Faulk's second touchdown of the season on a four-yard run with 22 seconds left in the half. Brady, who hit on nine of 12 passes for 156 yards, found wide receiver David Patten in front of safety Kim Herring for 20 yards to set up the touchdown.

Working against a Bengals secondary without left cornerback Deltha O'Neal (ankle) and strong safety Rogers Beckett (neck) and with Keiwan Ratliff and Herring getting the starts respectively, Brady came up with his second longest pass of the season when their safeties bit on Brady his run fake. That exposed cornerback Tory James to no help as Patten ran past for the 48-yard touchdown that made it 14-7 with 8:31 left in the first half.

Then Palmer made the critical mistake he has pretty much avoided during the last month. On the first snap after Patten's touchdown, Palmer hung out a pass along the line of scrimmage to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh that Samuel jumped and raced 34 yards for the touchdown on his first interception of the season with 8:19 left in the half.

Palmer rebounded to finish the half 14 of 18 for 146 yards, and came right back to lead a methodical 10-play, 69-yard drive in 5:49 that cut the lead to 21-14 on AFC receiving leader Chad Johnson's first catch of the day, a five-yard catch behind cornerback Randall Gay.

Palmer made two huge third-down throws to Houshmandzadeh and wide receiver Kevin Walter. After Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson was called for hooking Patriots end Richard Seymour, Palmer hit Houshmandzadeh in the face of the blitz for a 33-yarder down the middle.

The Bengals had tied the score at seven early in the second quarter on another grinding drive, this one 11 plays for 45 yards that ended on Palmer's two-yard touchdown flip to tight end Matt Schobel for the first home touchdown against New England since Oct. 24.

The Bengals' two touchdowns weren't insignificant, coming against a defense that had allowed just one touchdown combined in the previous six November and December home games. The Pats defense also came in allowing the fewest touchdowns in the red zone, but running back Rudi Johnson made some hay all over the field with 66 yards on 17 first-half carries.

Palmer went into the grind mode when they had trouble going deep. The one time he had Chad Johnson deep, Johnson beat Samuel down the field, but Palmer hung the ball up so long that he underthrew it and the ball bounced off Samuel's helmet.

The Bengals looked to be on the verge of snapping the Patriots' NFL-record of 18 straight games of scoring first on Sunday's efficient opening drive.

But Rudi Johnson fumbled on the ninth play of the drive, with strong safety Rodney Harrison forcing a fumble recovered by linebacker Willie McGinest at the New England 16.

Naturally, the Pats made them pay with a 13-play drive of their own, capped by Dillon's one-yard touchdown run with 5:03 left in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead that marked New England's NFL-leading 109 points off turnovers that they extended to 116 Samuel's touchdown off the pick.

The Bengals' goal of making sure Dillon didn't get off the mark early in the game failed when he punished the right side of the Bengals line for 16 yards on his first carry, and then converted a fourth-and-one from the Bengals 20 when he ran behind 310-pound defensive tackle Richard Seymour enveloping 245-pound outside linebacker Brian Simmons during a three-yard gain.

The Patriots passing wreaked havoc even though they were without their leading receiver, wideout David Givens. Givens was mysteriously inactive and Daniel Graham (rib), one of the best blocking tight ends in the AFC, also was a a scratch.

The loss of Graham didn't appear to help the Bengal in their biggest assignment of the day, trying to stop Dillon with a defense ranked next-to-last in the NFL against the rush.

Dillon appeared about 90 minutes before the game on Gillette's newly sodded turf, and greeted several of his ex-mates with a friendly hug, such as two of the guys soon to be tackling him, tackle John Thornton and Kaesviharn, as well as Lewis. He also chatted with the Bengals' starting wide receivers, Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, his closest friend on the team.

"Man, 161 for you and 171 for him," said Dillon to Johnson of the pair's yardage totals in last Sunday's Bengals' win in Baltimore. "You guys are doing well."

The Bengals are coming off their biggest win in years over the Ravens, but they know a win over the defending Super Bowl champions on a field where they have won 17 straight would be even bigger.

The 7-6 Bengals, who have won four of their last five, are trying to take a cue from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick in their bid to make the playoffs. New England is 13-4 in December since Belichick arrived in 2000.

"Look at the difference between us and Seattle. It's like night and day," said Lewis, whose team began 1-4 for the second straight season. "The teams that eventually make the playoffs and be sound football teams are teams that play well at the end of the season. Now, we've to win enough early on to get yourself set up, so every game isn't a major game or you're probably out of the playoff scenario."

As for Lewis' lineup, rookie running back Chris Perry was up for the first time in eight games.

Also inactive for the Bengals were offensive linemen Alex Sulfsted and Stacy Andrews and defensive linemen Greg Scott, Terrance Martin, and Shaun Smith.

Game captains for the Bengals were Anderson, Kitna, left end Duane Clemons, James, and special teamer Reggie Myles.

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