CINCINNATI - In the House That Corey Dillon Built - and discarded his shoulder pads - the Patriots made themselves at home against the Cincinnati Bengals for the second straight season, and it was one of Dillon's replacements in the Patriots backfield, Sammy Morris, who was the best Ohio player.
Morris was filling in for Laurence Maroney, who helped the Patriots gash the Bengals for a season-high 236 rushing yards on 41 carries last year but was a last-minute no-go with a groin injury this time.
Morris responded with his second career 100-yard game, finishing with 117 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries to lead a Patriots rushing attack that had 173 yards on 34 carries and ground the Bengals into submission with a 34-13 victory last night.
"We've got a lot of good players on this team," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "Pick a positional group. When somebody goes down, somebody has been able to go in and contribute - offensive line, defensive line, defensive backs. That's who we are and we expect it from each other."
Morris got air support from Randy Moss, who had his fourth straight 100-yard receiving game (9 catches, 102 yards) and capped the victory with a 14-yard touchdown catch, his NFL-leading seventh of the season, with 3:18 remaining. He has caught two TD passes in three straight games.
Moss's second TD ended any thoughts of a Monday Night Miracle for the Bengals (1-3), who fell before a Paul Brown Stadium record crowd of 66,113 that arrived orange-clad and went home orange-crushed after the Patriots spoiled their city's moment in the national spotlight.
The win allowed the Patriots (4-0) to join the Colts, the Cowboys, and the Packers as the NFL's only undefeated teams. But they say they're far from perfect.
"It's early. It's the fourth week. We're playing all right football," said Asante Samuel, who helped hold Bengals wide receiver/self-promoter Chad Johnson to three catches for 53 yards. "It looks perfect to you guys, but when we go watch film and stuff, we see a lot of mistakes we made, a lot of plays we left out on the field that we should have made and that would make the game a whole lot easier."
Against an injury-depleted Bengals defense, it seemed that the Patriots could have marched to the Ohio River if that's where the end zone was. Morris gave them a 17-point lead (24-7) on a 7-yard touchdown run on fourth and 1 with 7:55 left in the third quarter.
The key play on the drive was a run by another former Dolphin, Wes Welker, who took an end around on third and 3 from his own 26 and scooted 27 yards.
After the teams traded field goals, Cincinnati got as close as 14 on Shayne Graham's third field goal of the night, a 48-yarder with 9:04 remaining, but field goals won't beat the Patriots.
The Patriots led, 17-7, at the half after jumping out to a 10-0 first-quarter lead. But jumping up was how they ended up with a 10-point halftime advantage.
That "power small forward" the Celtics have been looking for? He plays for the Patriots and his name is Randy Moss.
With the Patriots leading, 10-7, Moss channeled Kevin Garnett on a third and 4 from the Cincinnati 7. Tom Brady lofted a ball into the end zone for Moss, who was covered by cornerback Johnathan Joseph. But "covered" is a relative term, as Moss leaped over the right shoulder of Joseph like KG going for a rebound and came down with a 7-yard touchdown with 4:11 remaining.
"He does his thing. It's a thing of beauty," said Ellis Hobbs. "I'm glad he's on my team. You can really see that he's happy and that he is in a positive atmosphere now where he's looking at guys that want to make plays. We work to win. That's the bottom line."
Samuel preserved that score when he snuffed out a Bengals drive and gave the Patriots their first Red Zone stop of the season in six tries, intercepting a Carson Palmer pass intended for Johnson at the New England 2-yard line 1:22 before the half.
There must be something about Mike Vrabel and Monday nights. The linebacker who moonlights as a goal line tight end reprised that role to give the Patriots a 10-0 lead with 51 seconds left in the first, catching a 1-yard TD pass from Brady on third and goal.
It was Vrabel's first touchdown grab since Dec. 26, 2005, when he had two in a 31-21 victory over the New York Jets at Giants Stadium in another Monday night tilt.
The score was set up by a 49-yard jaunt by Morris (13 carries for 98 yards in the first half), who fumbled the ball reaching for the goal line and was lucky that it didn't roll out of the end zone for a touchback.
Instead, it was first and goal at the 2 for the Patriots, who outgained the Bengals, 145-17 in the first quarter and 202-107 in the first half.
All week, Patriots coach Bill Belichick had warned about the Bengals' ability to generate turnovers, and that is what they did on New England's next possession to get on the board.
On third and 23 from his own 14, Brady tried to find Welker over the middle, instead finding fellow Michigan Wolverine Leon Hall, who intercepted at the Patriots' 37.
The Bengals capitalized when Palmer found T.J. Houshmandzadeh for a 1-yard score to trim the New England lead to 10-7.
The Patriots took the opening drive of the game and marched from their 21 to the Cincinnati 13 before settling for a 31-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.
"Our mentality is play fast and keep it going. Never let off the gas pedal," said Hobbs. "I think we've done a great job of that these past four games, understanding that if we get a good fast start, just keep the momentum rolling out there."