FOXBORO, Mass. - Call it another prime-time implosion.
The Bengals came into Sunday night's game at Gillette Stadium looking for a pass-the-torch win in the AFC, but got burned on a night nothing went right as the Walking Dead Patriots bounced back to take a 43-17 win.
It was an enormously frustrating night for the Bengals and their fans as they fell to 2-8 in prime-time games and playoff games in the Green-Dalton era. It was the first time they allowed 40 points since a 44-13 loss in Baltimore in the 2012 opener, another prime-time game, as they gave up over 500 yards on 82 plays with the Pats having the ball nearly 39 minutes.
But with Baltimore's loss in Indianapolis the 3-1 Bengals stayed a half-game ahead of the Ravens and Steelers in first place in the AFC North.
The Bengals flashed some life of their own early in the second half when back-to-back big plays cut the lead to 20-10 with 11:23 left in the third quarter. Cornerback Adam Jones parlayed a block from running back Cedric Peerman into a juke-and-go 47-yard punt return down the right sideline. On the next snap wide receiver Mohamed Sanu beat cornerback Alfonzo Dennard on a go pattern and quarterback Andy Dalton hit him in stride for a 37-yard touchdown pass.
But the defense that had been so good was as bad as it's been in years and couldn't respond with a stop on the next series. They had no clue how to cover the New England tight ends as Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright got loose for back-to-back plays of 17 and 25 yards, respectively, over the middle.
The real killer was on third-and-16 when the Pats simply handed it off to running back Shane Vereen and he cut against the grain of the defensive line with tackles Geno Atkins and Devon Still not being able to make a play and nobody else could either on a 19-yard journey.
Gronkowski was then wide open again over the middle and when safety Reggie Nelson couldn't finish the tackle at the 5 the Pats got the TD right back at 27-10. It was Gronkowski's sixth catch for 100 yards to go along with Wright's five for 85 yards.
At that point New England's wide receivers had four catches for 33 yards. A tough night for a defense that had given up 33 points all year and it was their shocking inability to stop the run that made all the difference as the Pats racked up 191 rushing yards after three quarters and 220 for the game. The Pats' 505 yards is believed to be the first time since Sept. 16, 2007 the Bengals gave up more than 500 yards.
Three lost fumbles didn't help after they didn't have any fumbles in the first three games.
Both Vereen and running back Stevan Ridley neared the 100-yard mark, a real bad sign considering head coach Bill Belichick's Patriots came into the game 38-1 with a 100-yard rusher. Ridley got his 101th yard on his 20th carry and finished with 112 while Vereen had a whopping 10 yards per his nine carries.
Kickoff, returner Brandon Tate had the ball popped out of his arm by running back Brandon Bolden and cornerback Kyle Arrington picked it up for a nine-yard return for a touchdown that was a killer and made it 34-10. Tate had come in on his 27th birthday looking to repeat what he did for the Patriots against the Bengals in the 2010 opener with a 97-yard kick return for a touchdown.
It was another tough night in the spotlight for the Green-Dalton Bengals, although Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green began to heat up late but the defense couldn't stop anything to make it close. Cornerback Darrelle Revis was assigned to shadow Green and he kept him relatively quiet on three catches for 55 yards.
But when Revis left with hamstring injury, Green immediately picked on cornerback Logan Ryan on the next snap and got behind him for a 17-yard touchdown near the back line with 3:43 left in the third quarter that cut it to 34-17 as he finished with five catches for 81 yards.
But again the defense couldn't make a stop after a score. Vereen ripped off the biggest run against them this season as the Bengals failed to set their right edge. No big bodies were there and Adam Jones and cornerback Leon Hall couldn't get the right angles on a 43-yard run. The play translated into Stephen Gostkowski's field goal that made it 37-17.
Dalton didn't get a lot of help at times. With about 10 minutes left, Sanu dropped a first down and on the next snap the Bengals gave up their first sack of the season on a three-man rush. Tackle Chris Jones stunted through left tackle Andrew Whitworth and left guard Clint Boling on third down to force a punt. It ended a streak of 143 straight regular-season passes without a sack, dating back to the next-to-last game of last year.
The first half ended in devastating fashion in the last minute when Green, held to one catch for no yards by Revis, shook loose for a 19-yard catch over the middle, but Revis stripped the ball from Green for a fumble at the Cincinnati 25 and it translated into Gostkowski's 19-yard field goal with nine seconds left for a 20-3 half-time lead. It was a stunning turn of events for a team that had outscored opponents 44-3 in the first half this season.
The game bore no resemblance to the sad sack Patriots of last Monday night or the 3-0 Bengals of September, the lone NFL unbeaten.
On the first two series the Patriots rammed it down their throats for the first first half touchdowns against the Bengals this season, Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham dropped a perfectly-thrown touchdown pass, and the Bengals defense wilted against the run and the tight end tandem of Gronkowski and Wright as the Pats ripped off 256 yards in the first half.
New England came out much more emotional and ready to play than the Bengals. Quarterback Tom Brady got in the Bengals face when he converted a fourth-and-one with a four-yard mush job to the goal line and Gronkowski drew an unsportsmanlike conduct flag when he gave safety George Iloka a shot after he made a 14-yard catch over the middle.
It worked to New England's detriment late in the first half when four penalties on a 10-play Cincinnati drive translated into Mike Nugent's 29-yard field goal that cut New England's lead to 14-3 with 4:33 left in the half. At that point the Patriots had more yards (94) in penalties than the Bengals (91) had in yards.
It started with a late hit after a punt and ended when Revis was called for holding Green on third-and-seven from the Pats 18. But the Bengals were stopped on third-and-three when Bernard didn't get it up the middle on a yard.
But the big play came earlier in the drive when Gresham dropped a touchdown pass lofted over his shoulder at the goal line.
Ridley bucked over from the 1 less than five minutes into the game, the eighth run of the drive. But the big play was a 30-yard pass to Wright running wide open down the seam.
The drive was inexplicable, ripping the middle of the Bengals defense just six days after the Pats put up 14 points in an awful effort in Kansas City while the Bengals were on a bye week.
The Pats, clearly trying to get their patchwork offensive line untracked, hammered the Bengals at will on the ground, racking up 108 rushing yards in the half. It was the Bengals duo of Bernard and Jeremy Hill that was supposed to gouge that Patriots defense so soft against the Chiefs. But Ridley bounded for 49 yards on 11 carries and Vereen added 48 more on six just carries. That worked out to five yards per carry, about what the Bengals have been giving up all season.
The bad vibes continued on the Bengals' first offensive series when Nugent's 52-yard field goal try was short with 5:45 left in the first quarter. Right tackle Andre Smith was called for a false start one snap after left end Rob Ninkovich got a little bit of pressure against Dalton on an overthrown deep ball to Green.
The Pats chose to have Revis shadow Green all over the field and early in the drive he picked off Dalton on an underthrown ball down the right side but was called for illegal contact. The Bengals couldn't take advantage when Boling was called for illegal use of hands and the penalties offset.
Brady was supposed to be left for dead and on the way out, but after Nugent missed the 52-yarder they were chanting, "Brady, Brady." On third-and-eight, the Bengals didn't blitz and Gronkowski beat linebacker Emmanuel Lamur over the middle and then ran away for a 27-yard gain. On the next snap Wright, released off the line untouched and went down the seam to the goal line wide open for Brady's 17-yard touchdown pass, stunning a defense that came into the game leading the NFL allowing just 11 points per game.
Lamur, linebacker Rey Maualuga, and Nelson were looking at each as if there had been a lack of communication.
The Bengals had a shot to get back into the game on the next series when on third-and-two Dalton sent Bernard and tight end Ryan Hewitt wide to the left. They got the matchup they wanted with Bernard on linebacker Jamie Collins. Dalton pumped on Bernard's double move down the sideline and he was open but the pass was too far ahead of him.
And that's how the next drive started as Dalton failed to drive away the prime time demons early in this one. Green had a step on Revis down the left sideline, but Dalton couldn't keep the pass on the field and it landed out of bounds.
Then with the Pats stunting up the middle, Hill got dumped for a five-yard loss and with the roaring crowd sensing the kill, Whitworth false started to put the Bengals at a third-and-18 and a screen pass to Hill just to get them out of trouble to punt.
Brady basically flipped off his detractors in the first half like a good Bostonian. He sifted the Bengals on 11 of 19 for 153 yards while Dalton struggled to six of 11 for 63 yards. For the game, Dalton was 15 of 24 for 204 yards and two TDs. Brady was 23 of 35 for 292 yards and two TDs in a vintage effort.
The Bengals lost linebacker Sean Porter on the opening kickoff with a knee injury, his first career play in a career haunted by injuries.
PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals lineup offered one surprise before Sunday night's game against the Patriots when running back Rex Burkhead was inactive.
Head coach Marvin Lewis opted to make linebacker Sean Porter active for the first time in his NFL career as well as all nine offensive linemen.
That indicates the Bengals were preparing to play smashmouth with the Patriots as the Bengals became the NFL's last unbeaten team for the first time since the AFC championship season of 1988. It will be recalled the Patriots were the team that knocked the 6-0 Bengals from the ranks of the unbeaten with a victory in Foxboro.
As expected, Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict (concussion) and wide receiver Marvin Jones (ankle) didn't go, as well as right guard Kevin Zeitler (calf) and defensive tackle Brandon Thompson (knee). Cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris and rookie defensive end Will Clarke were healthy scratches.
Burkhead is healthy after missing the first three games with an Aug. 16 MCL knee sprain, but the Bengals went with three backs again. Since the Patriots choose not to announce their starting lineups, Lewis didn't announce his.
Vincent Rey figures to replace Burfict in the starting lineup, another one of the many reasons the Pats are expected to try and run the ball. According to profootballfocus.com, Burfict is the NFL's second-rated outside backer against the run. But Rey came off the bench to lead the club in run stops two weeks ago, according to PFF.
Defensive tackle Devon Still was active for the third straight week after he came back from the practice squad. And they needed him to come up big with Thompson, one their best run stuffers, out again.
Still honored his daughter Sunday night with "Leah," and "Strong," written in his eye black.