By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — You’d never know it from the way the scoreboard looked when it showed zeroes on the clock, but for a good portion of Sunday afternoon, the Patriots were in peril of losing to the Bengals at Gillette Stadium.
Of course, given the 35-17 final score, the threat of a Bengals win was apparently not as strong as it may have seemed through two quarters of football, and it was the Patriots’ ability to capitalize on a crucial penalty call before getting on a roll that could not be stopped.
The effort was strong on both sides of the ball, and the negatives weren’t quite so easy to come by. So here’s an adjusted list of the normal Four Ups, Four Downs from the game.
At halftime, Gronkowski had two receptions for 41 yards. One catch was a big 32-yard gain, helping lead to a field goal, but for the most part he was quiet. And then the second half happened. He caught three passes in the third quarter for 80 yards and a touchdown, and in the fourth quarter he hauled in two more passes for 41 more yards.
By the end of the game, he had a single-game career high 162 yards, taking a step forward after his first real performance a week ago in Cleveland.
The offense was largely kept in check in the first half before exploding for 25 points in the second half. The emergence of Gronkowski had everything to do with that.
With Jamie Collins out of the lineup due to a hip ailment, the onus to be a do-everything type of player fell on the shoulders of Hightower. He delivered.
The defensive captain was all over the field, finishing the game with 13 total tackles and 1.5 sacks. Both sacks were huge, but his one-armed takedown of Andy Dalton in the Cincinnati end zone marked the distinct turning point in the game. It came midway through the third quarter, with the Bengals leading 14-10. Hightower burst shot up the A gap, got a hand on Dalton and simply did not let go. The safety cut the Cincinnati lead to 14-12, and the offense then took advantage of the short field and made it a 19-14 Patriots lead in short order. The Patriots would hold on to that lead for the rest of the afternoon.
Considering the coverage troubles of the Cincinnati linebacking corps, James White figured to play a prominent role in the Patriots’ game plan. And he most certainly did, coming up with two receiving touchdowns out of the backfield. On the game, he had eight receptions for 47 yards and he chipped in with 19 yards on seven rushes, too.
It’s kind of crazy, how easily one can overlook the contributions of the quarterback in New England. But that’s only because he’s done it for so long and has a tendency to make it look easy.
Here’s what the final line looked like for Brady in his first home game of 2016: 29-for-35, 376 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs.
That’s 82.9 percent passing, which can reasonably be described as being pretty good.
It was the 18th time in his career that he’s thrown for 375 or more yards in a game. It’s the 12th time he’s thrown for 375 and at least three touchdowns. And it’s the eighth time he’s done all of that in a game without throwing an interception.
It’s become quite commonplace for Brady to pile up such stats, and Sunday’s effort likely won’t end up on the definitive highlight package of Brady’s career. But it was nevertheless as good of a performance from a quarterback that any team could ever hope to get on any given Sunday.
FOUR THREE DOWNS
In the kicking game, the Patriots are getting a taste of how much of the rest of the league lives. And they probably don’t like it.
That’s not to say that Gostkowski has been bad, per se. He hasn’t. But he’s missed a whole lot more kicks this season than he ever has, and that reared its head in the second half on Sunday when he missed an extra point attempt.
The miss came after the Patriots had taken a 25-14 lead late in the third quarter, and it was a miss that looked like it could loom large when the Bengals cut the lead to 25-17. At that point, a touchdown and a two-point conversion from Cincinnati would have been enough to force overtime.
The defense and the offense made sure the missed PAT didn’t matter, but considering he’s now missed three field goals and a PAT this year, and considering that missed PAT in Denver last January kind of hung over the offseason, the Gostkowski situation has inched slightly past the “monitoring” stage and gotten to the point where the coaching staff and Gostkowski are going to have to try to nip this in the bud as soon as possible.
(It should be noted that all of this concern speaks largely to how deadly accurate and reliable Gostkowski has been over the years.)
Rob Gronkowski And LeGarrette Blount
Gronkowski’s contributions on the stat sheet were obvious, but both he and LeGarrette Blount fell prey to the Bengals’ ability to force opponents to get involved in some post-whistle shenanigans that no winning team ever wants to be a part of.
Gronkowski took a 15-yard penalty for taunting Vontaze Burfict, and Blount likewise took a penalty for unnecessary roughness on Burfict as well. They didn’t end up being costly, and it’d be hard to say the Bengals and Burfict did nothing to prompt the activity (see: here). But NFL officials don’t often care who started it, and it’s often the retaliator who ends up getting flagged.
In the end, Bill Belichick might not be too upset about these penalties. But while he appreciates his players playing with emotion and sticking up for each other, he also knows there’s a balance that must be struck to avoid those yellow flags from littering the field. In a tighter game, they have a tendency to turn W’s into L’s. (Ask the Bengals about that.)