Bengals 31, Patriots 3

Patriots put on sorry exhibition

Palmer, Bengals air it out in preseason rout

By Joe Burris
Globe Staff / August 22, 2004

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CINCINNATI -- Preseason games don't count. Or do they?

How much importance does one place on the Patriots' 31-3 exhibition loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last night? At the very least, it counts as a sordid effort, one that left the defending Super Bowl champions at a loss for explanations and prompted what undoubtedly will be hasty retreat to the drawing board.

Surely, it was only the second exhibition of the season, but New England was surprisingly outplayed in every phase of the game by a youthful team whose coach entered concerned about his players being physically overmatched.

Turns out second-year coach Marvin Lewis's concerns were unfounded. Cincinnati dominated from the outset, scoring on its first three possessions and gaining 385 total yards, including 276 in the first half alone. Its defense held the Patriots to just 10 rushing yards in the first half and intercepted Tom Brady once.

"The [games] don't count from a record standpoint," said Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, "but they always count on the field because they send a message."

Last night, the Patriots appeared to have gotten the point that there is much work to do.

"Obviously, the Bengals played great, they were outstanding in every phase of the game, and we didn't do much of anything well," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "They dominated in every phase, offense, defense, and special teams. We didn't coach well. We didn't play well. We got totally outclassed."

Belichick said his team will work to address last night's performance this week, but he didn't know where it would start. New England's starting defense played until 5:25 remained in the first quarter, then on came the substitutes. The first string returned and played much of the second half.

"We played different combinations of people, and it all turned out the same," Belichick said. "They took the ball, they moved it down the field, and they scored. We took the ball, ran three plays, and gave it back to them."

The passing game Belichick expressed concern about after the first exhibition game against Philadelphia didn't improve. Brady completed 8 of 13 passes for 126 yards and the interception. Backup Rohan Davey completed 10 of 24 passes for 86 yards and was also picked off once.

Corey Dillon, the former Bengal who demanded -- and got his wish-- to be traded from the team, rushed for just 31 yards on 11 carries (including all of the Patriots' 10 rushing yards in the first half) and was roundly booed each time he touched the ball. Mike Cloud led Patriot rushers with 43 yards on six carries.

"It was an ugly night. There was a lot of disappointment in the coaches and players. It shows you where you're at. We still have a way to go," said Brady, who added that the Bengals' effort is likely what the defending champs will face every week in the regular season.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer, the 2002 Heisman Trophy winner and last year's top overall draft pick, appears ready to take over the Bengals' starting job after not taking a regular-season snap during his rookie year. He showed exceptional ability to scramble and throw on the run and by the end of the first half had completed passes to six receivers, including Chad Johnson (3 receptions, 62 yards).

Palmer completed 12 of 19 attempts for 179 yards and three scores in a half of work. Palmer's play was bolstered by a solid ground game as Rudi Johnson gained 76 yards on 16 carries and scored on a 1-yard run for the game's first touchdown, with 12:36 remaining in the first quarter.

Moreover, the Bengals' receivers, who were maligned in last week's first preseason game (at Tampa Bay) for dropping catchable balls, were surehanded last night. Five receivers had at least two catches, led by Chad Johnson's three.

"I just like the way the team is playing around me," said Palmer. "The receivers made some plays. I don't think we ran it one time where we didn't gain at least a couple of yards. They came out and played the defenses we expected them to play."

The Bengals went ahead, 14-0, with 7:44 left in the first quarter on a 13-yard pass from Palmer to tight end Tony Stewart. They made it 21-0 on a 9-yard toss from Palmer to T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the second quarter.

The Patriots' lone score, an Adam Vinatieri 25-yard field goal, came with 6:04 left before halftime and capped the team's best drive (12 plays, 87 yards). New England, however, had first and goal from the 3 and could not punch it in.

Cincinnati added two more scores, a 9-yard pass from Palmer to Kenny Watson with 32 seconds left in the first half and a 38-yard field goal by Shayne Graham with 3:21 left in the third quarter.

Belichick was asked several times if he had any indication last week that the team would play so poorly. "It doesn't matter," he said. "The team wasn't ready to play. Whatever it was, it wasn't very good on anyone's part."

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