(AP Photo)

Tom Brady and Wes Welker were terrific in the Patriots’ 38-24 win over the Bengals Sunday, but the Pats’ offense is expected to dominate this season. Their talented, yet inexperienced defense, which looked dominant at times, needs more consistency if they want to really contend this season.

Devin McCourty’s shoulder hit that flipped Carson Palmer out of bounds was just one of many exciting defensive moments. McCourty’s mostly strong coverage of Terrell Owens, including a defended pass on the first play of his career. Patrick Chung’s team-leading 16 tackles. The instinctive play of Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo, who each nearly picked off short throws.

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Through all these plays, it was linebacker Gary Guyton who made the biggest play of all with his 59-yard interception return for a touchdown, capitalizing on a bad pass from Palmer. Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, one of the few veterans starting on defense for the Pats, even generated a decent amount of pressure on the quarterback, and was pleased with the defense’s overall performance.

“We wanted to make plays early in the game to get energy on our defense. And that’s what we did,” Banta-Cain told reporters after the game. “Obviously, in the second half, they came out and put some points up on us. But it was good to see we were ready to play in the first half.”

Despite the positives for the Patriots in limiting the potent Bengals offense, the drop-off in performance from the first half to the second could be a microcosm of their defense this season.

The biggest mismatch by far was Chad Ochocinco against second-year cornerback Darius Butler. Ochocinco dominated with 12 catches for 159 yards and a sweet touchdown catch in the third. Thankfully, he spared us the special celebration he promised.

Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco

Butler mostly couldn't keep up with Ochocinco. (Getty Images)

Rookies Jermaine Gresham and Jordan Shipley also made their presences felt in the second half with 7 catches combined. Gresham completely over-matched safety James Sanders on his easy touchdown catch in the third.

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Though the Patriots’ first-half lead was ultimately insurmountable, they can’t bank on building those all season. If Palmer, who made plenty of errant throws, eventually found a way to score consistently, then the Colts, Packers, Chargers, and Ravens offenses could all potentially feast on them.

The Patriots’ own offense was ultimately the difference Sunday. Tom Brady had great protection all day, leaving the Bengals’ defensive front a non-factor.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski had a great overall game in his NFL debut, blocking well and flashing serious red-zone target potential with a nifty touchdown catch. Brady loves his and the other tight ends’ versatility.

“Not only can they block, but they’re all able to catch the ball, too,” Brady told reporters after the game. “It creates different mismatches out there.”

Wes Welker was remarkable, catching two touchdown passes in his return from ACL surgery and playing the same hard-nosed football Patriots fans are accustomed to seeing. And let’s not forget Brandon Tate’s soul-crushing 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half.

Brady can't do all the work himself for the Patriots. (AP Photo)

The Patriots will undoubtedly score prodigious points this season. But without more consistency on defense, they likely won’t be able to run deep in the playoffs, and it will be tough to even make it there.

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The Patriots defense proved it can make plays and contain powerful offenses. It proved able to do it for two quarters, but has yet to prove the ability to do it for four. It needed, if nothing else, to show some promise Sunday, and it certainly delivered that. But it has much more to prove if the Patriots plan to be a legitimate contender in 2010.