A week ago, the Cleveland Browns gave New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady little more than an exhibition in his return to the lineup. Given a challenge against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, Brady didn't have the same fortune for the first 30 minutes.
It's a good thing he had another half to play.
Brady threw three touchdown passes, two going to James White, as the Patriots pulled away in the second half for a 35-17 win over the Bengals. The game marked Brady's first home game of 2016, and the fans at Gillette Stadium constantly showed their appreciation.
Brady came out of the tunnel to a playoff-worthy ovation and settled in for his second straight sterling performance after a slow start. He completed 29 of his 35 passes, working underneath and intermediate routes to take advantage of Bengals linebackers in coverage.
In two games since returning from his four-game Deflategate suspension, Brady has thrown for seven touchdowns without an interception. He also became the fourth quarterback in NFL history to pass the 5,000-completion mark, joining Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Drew Brees:
His 5,000th completion went to tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had his second straight 100-yard game. Gronkowski led all receivers with 162 yards on seven receptions, setting a career high in the process. He also scored his first touchdown of 2016, which could mean only one thing, as the NFL shared:
Gronk's career day didn't draw many fans among the Bengals defense. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict and Gronkowski got into a scuffle in the fourth quarter, with the tight end drawing a penalty for taunting.
White led all Patriots with eight receptions out of the backfield. The versatile back has seen a massive uptick in snaps over the last three weeks, bringing in at least 50 receiving yards in each contest while in many ways unseating LeGarrette Blount as New England's primary running back.
Blount carried the ball 13 times for 50 yards, though a large chunk of those came in the fourth quarter, when New England was trying to salt the game away. He scored a one-yard touchdown with less than a minute remaining.
The New England defense held Cincinnati in check, especially in the run game. Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill combined to rush for 87 yards on their 28 carries. Andy Dalton and Rex Burkhead had the two longest runs of the game for Cincinnati. Dalton also scored the lone touchdown on the ground.
As a passer, Dalton threw for 254 yards and a touchdown without an interception. A.J. Green brought in a team-high six passes for 88 yards, while rookie Tyler Boyd set a new career high with 79 yards on four receptions.
There's not much to write home about regarding the Bengals' offensive performance. It was neither exemplary nor especially poor. The low moment came via a safety in the third quarter, though the Patriots did not force a turnover.
New England's win was a case of one team executing its offensive plan better than the other. Whereas Bengals drives stalled after promising starts, Brady and Co. finished theirs off with touchdowns.
At 5-1, the Patriots are a game ahead of the second-place Buffalo Bills in the AFC East. At 2-4, the Bengals have their work cut out if they hope to make another postseason run.
In typical fashion, Brady wasn't 100 percent pleased with his performance, per Doug Kyed of NESN:
I could do some things better out there, I think offensively we can too. It’s good to be 5-1. I think we’re in a decent place. Just gotta keep stringing these games together. There’s a ton of football left. It’s a good defense we played today, and they made it challenging on us. We’re trying to figure out what we’re made of. It was good to get going there in the second half.
Brady went out of his way to praise his offensive weapons:
They’re an exceptional group. There’s no doubt about it. It’s been fun to work with them. We’re still building. It’s only six games into the year. There’s still a lot more work to do. There’s a long way to go. We’ll be challenged different weeks with different things, but it’s good to spread the ball around a little bit today. A lot of guys wound up making plays. That’s a good way to play.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick wasn't happy about his receivers' inability to get open: "We’ve got to do a better job of getting open, getting the ball out and blocking them. So, I’d say some of the problem we had were just team execution plays—coaching, playing. Just a little bit of everything."
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was obviously disappointed with his team's effort, per the Bengals' official website:
It’s disappointing that we have a lot of things going right and doing things good, and correct and not finishing things. We continue to be our own Achilles heel, way too often. Whether it be a penalty that sets us back, or more importantly a penalty on defense, whatever it is, third-down conversion. You know, it’s key to a football game. You know, we got to do a better job. We got to coach it out of us and we got to just keep grinding at it.