CINCINNATI -- When the outside world looked at yesterday's matchup at Paul Brown Stadium, it saw a battered defense that was missing half its secondary facing an elite quarterback and the fourth-highest-scoring offense in pro football. The world looked at this and saw a disaster about to happen. The Patriots looked at it and saw opportunity.
``We'll get to the quarterback," New England defensive end Richard Seymour privately promised late last week. ``They've got a great offense. A great quarterback. A strong runner. Some great receivers. They're explosive on offense, but there'll be opportunities to get to their quarterback."
As things turned out, there were more opportunities than that for the Patriots, whose rebuilt secondary was missing two starters but didn't miss a beat or a chance to put a beatdown on the no-longer-undefeated Cincinnati Bengals. Although the Patriots' offense was alternatingly grinding and explosive in a 38-13 shellacking of the Bengals, this was a win about defense more than offense. It was a win about holding on at first and then holding down a team averaging 28.3 points a game, until it did what so many other opponents have done since the Patriots' five-year reign as the elite team in the NFL began. It imploded.
The Patriots' defense has a habit of dismantling an offense a bit at a time, slowly squeezing the life out of it until the pressure begins to mount and it implodes, victims of its own forced missteps.
Trailing by 8 points as the fourth quarter opened, the Bengals were clearly a harried group on offense, unsure now how they had moved the ball so easily at the start of the game and feeling the need to abandon a non-productive running game and attack New England's depleted secondary in earnest at a time when the Patriots sensed that would be the case.
When they tried, New England was ready for them, sacking Carson Palmer three times in a span of four plays, forcing him to fumble twice, and ending any thought that Cincinnati would make a statement about itself at the expense of a veteran team that has grown used to triumphing in just such difficult circumstances.
``Yeah, we had guys hurt, but it's not the first time this has happened," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. ``We've had times with two or three guys down in our secondary and we've had other guys come through. There was no sense of panic. We have veteran guys to put in there who will cover."
Those guys were Artrell Hawkins and Chad Scott, who between them have 19 years of experience as NFL defensive backs. When they were called upon this week to replace injured Eugene Wilson and Ellis Hobbs, neither thought, ``Oh my Lord, they've got Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Carson Palmer and Rudi Johnson." What they thought was ``Do your job."
``We didn't go into this conceding anything," said Hawkins, who played much of his career in Cincinnati before coming to the Patriots last season and switching from cornerback to safety. ``We're playing with a bunch of veteran guys. I was the third-youngest guy we had in that backfield and I've been around nine years. We have experienced defensive backs who have covered a lot of receivers in this league.
``It took us a couple of series to settle down, but once we did we made some plays when we needed to and got some turnovers. I wouldn't say we're a great secondary, but we understood playing on the road you had to withstand the initial surge and not let it kill you. We stood up. We held."
Palmer had spoken last week of the Bengals having made their statement a week ago against Pittsburgh, noting the Steelers are the defending Super Bowl champions, not the Patriots. While accurate, it was a statement as much about youth as history. The Steelers may be the defending Super Bowl champions but the Patriots are three-time winners of that game because they are a prideful unit that understood what it was facing and how to stop it. They knew how to hold when things seemed most desperate.
They survived Cincinnati's surge on the first two drives of the game and then slowly squeezing the life out of Cincinnati's offense by shutting down its running game, as they have so many others in the past. They also kept the Bengals' dangerous wide receivers in front of them and finally confused Palmer with an assortment of looks in that secondary that were designed not so much to shut him down but to make him hesitate just long enough to break the Bengals' rhythm.
``They did some things differently, but it's too complicated to try and explain it," Palmer said, a statement one could hardly quarrel with since he was unable to explain it to his teammates when it counted most -- when the game was being contested.
In the first two drives, the Bengals easily moved 58 yards and then 47 yards, but both times they stalled just outside the red zone and had to settle for Shayne Graham field goals. That gave the Bengals a 6-0 lead by the end of the first quarter, but what it really had done was make clear that this was going to be a dogfight not a coronation.
``That was big to hold them the first couple of drives to 6-0," Bruschi said of the Bengals, who would finish a dismal 2 of 11 on third down, a conversion rate of 18 percent. That by a team that came into the game with a third-down conversion rate of 40 percent (16 of 40). When you so consistently fail to convert on third down you not only push your offense off the field, you also bend its mind out of shape until, at some point, mistakes are made. That is always the Patriots' defensive goal -- let mistakes be made by someone else.
``The game could have been a lot different if it was 14-0," Bruschi said. ``In those situations, as they're moving the ball, you try to stay in the moment. You know they're getting close to your goal line so you have to tighten up. Don't panic. Don't try and force yourself to make a play. Just give them some different looks.
``We did that with zone coverages and some man and then sometimes we undercut their receivers. Carson is such a good quarterback you can't just play one thing with him. You have to give him a lot to think about."
The Patriots did that all afternoon, a process that began by stopping Palmer's offense on third and 3 at New England's 22 on the game's opening drive and then doing the same thing on the next drive with the assistance of Cincinnati's offense, when it was called for having 12 men in the huddle on a third and 3 at the same 22-yard line.
Faced with a third and 8 after the penalty at the Patriot 27, Palmer tried to find loquacious wide receiver Chad Johnson, but the throw was forced and fell short. In the end, that would be the story of the day for the Bengals' offense. Forced and falling short.
``We were out-executed today," said Palmer, who was sacked four times and fumbled twice as the pressure began to build in the fourth quarter once Seymour and his teammates along the defensive front shut down Cincinnati's running game and began to harass his receivers ever more tightly. ``They came in and had a plan and stuck to it. They took the deep ball away in a couple instances. You never expect to come in and get beat as bad as we did."
Certainly the pundits didn't think it possible. The Patriots had put a list of about nine national voices on their dry-erase board, all picking Cincinnati to win. This might seem like sophomoric inspiration to some, but this team always has taken to that idea of having something to prove. On this Sunday, they had much to prove after a dismal loss to the Broncos a week ago.
With Hobbs and Wilson hobbled, they not only had to reassert themselves defensively, they had to do it with what the world thought was a depleted army. The world, as the Patriots have proven so often, was wrong about them.
``They have a good team," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said of the Bengals. ``They have so many weapons. But we felt we had good players on defense too. We felt we could do what we had to do.
``Palmer is a great quarterback, but we felt if we could get to him, get people around him and get him on the ground, we had a great chance for success. At halftime we emphasized that we hadn't played 60 minutes of football this season. It was time to play 60 minutes.
``We felt if you make them earn what they get, they're a different team. It was important to tackle well, play smart, and not give them the big play. Our focus was making them earn everything they got."
Yesterday they earned exactly what they got. A beating.