FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots (5-1) had to fight through early struggles and a third-quarter deficit, but eventually pulled away for the 35-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals (2-4) in Tom Brady's return to Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
While the home crowd was clearly amped up to see No. 12, that electricity felt during pregame and introductions faded to the point that the Brady-led offense was booed while exiting the field for a second-quarter punt.
But after New England scored on four of its five second-half possessions, including three touchdowns, Brady had put up the kind of day the faithful New Englanders came to see.
A week after a 400-yard, three touchdown debut in Cleveland, Brady completed 29 of 35 passes (83 percent) for 376 yards with three more touchdowns and no interceptions for a 140.0 passer rating to beat the Bengals.
It wasn't easy, though. Brady was sacked three times, hit six times and under presser for much of the day. New England's high-powered offense had just one third-down conversion in the first half and needed a questionable illegal contact penalty to extend a drive that ended with a touchdown late in the second quarter to take a 10-7 lead at the break.
"We got off to a little bit of a slow start, but finished with 35 points so it was pretty good; against a good team," Brady explained. "I can do some things better out there and I think offensively, we can too, but it's good to be 5-1. I think we're at a decent place, so we've just got to keep stringing these games together. There's a ton of football left. It's a good defense we played today. They made it challenging on us, but we're trying to figure out what we're made of, and it was good to get going there in the second half."
Brady spread the ball around to seven different targets, each notching at least 20 yards receiving. Rob Gronkowski led the way with a career-high 162 yards, while passing back James White had a game-high eight receptions and a pair of touchdowns.
"We played a lot better during the second half. I thought our execution was a lot better," Brady said. "It took us a little bit of time to figure out how to kind of get our guys open, and once we did that it was good. We got the ball to a bunch of different guys in space and made a bunch of guys miss."
Brady has played in two games, both wins. He helped New England score 33 and 35 points in those contests while throwing for nearly 800 yards and six touchdowns. He is surrounded by an impressive, versatile cast of weapons that he is still learning to deploy. Challenges like the one put up by the Bengals forced New England's hand as the offense evolves.
"They're an exceptional group, there's no doubt about it. It's been fun to work with them. We're still building," Brady said. "We're only six games into the year, so 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 was good to kind of spread the ball around a bit today. A lot of guys ended up making plays, and that's a good way to play."
Especially when you win and sit atop the AFC as the only one-loss team more than a third of the way through a season in which you played without your franchise quarterback for a month.
Patriots fans got Brady back Sunday in Foxborough, and the Patriots are back in control of the AFC playoff picture. In so many ways, it's almost like No. 12 was never gone.
--Tight end Rob Gronkowski scored his first touchdown of the season in the win over the Bengals, one of his seven receptions on the way to a career-high 162 yards against Cincy. It was Gronkowski's second straight 100-yard game, and the 22nd of his career, tying former Chargers great Jackie Smith for third most (Tony Gonzalez, 31; Kellen Winslow, 24) in NFL history by a tight end
The touchdown was Gronkowski's 67th of his career, now one shy of Stanley Morgan's Patriots franchise record.
For Gronkowski, that has come thanks to returning to full health after opening the year with a hamstring injury suffered in training camp practice.
"Just being able to practice and being healthy and having two wheels under me and going out there and seeing all the guys work throughout the practices when I wasn't there," Gronkowski said of consecutive big weeks catching the ball. "It makes me want to get out there, it makes me want to work hard in my rehab, which I was. I was doing everything possible to get back to where I needed to get back to. When you see the guys, when you're down and out and you're not playing and you see the guys working hard non-stop, it makes you want to work hard in rehab and get back out on the field, and then when you get back on to the field, to get back into the shape I was in at the beginning of camp. Just seeing my teammates go hard, it makes me want to go, and it makes me want to go just for myself, too. Just for the love of the game."
--Linebacker Dont'a Hightower had a game-high 13 tackles in the win over the Bengals, including 10 solo stops. He added 1.5 sacks, including brining down Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in the end zone in the third quarter for a safety that helped ignite a Patriots team that was trailing 14-10 at the time.
With fellow linebacker Jamie Collins inactive with a hip injury, New England needed a big day from its defensive captain, and certainly got it as he made plays all over the field in all aspects of the defensive game plan.
REPORT CARD VS. BENGALS
PASSING OFFENSE: B -
Looking at the final statistics, one might infer that Tom Brady had an easy day against the Bengals. But that was far from the case as Cincy put plenty of early pressure on the New England quarterback, the Patriots notching just one third-down conversion in the first half. But things got going in the second half and by the end of the afternoon Brady completed 29 of 35 throws (83 percent) for 376 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 140.0 passer rating. He spread the ball around to seven targets, passing back James White notching a game-high eight catches for 47 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Rob Gronkowski had a career-best 162 yards on his seven catches, including his first touchdown of the season. Certainly the Patriots pass protection had its issues -- especially dealing with Bengals defensive tackle Pat Sims -- and there were too many slow-developing routes in the first half, but overall the New England passing game finished with another big day with Brady back under center.
RUSHING OFFENSE: D -
With Brady back, the running game is subsequently back in a far more complementary role in New England. That was certainly the case against the Bengals as LeGarrette Blount tied a season-low with 13 attempts for just 50 yards (3.8 average), although he did have a 1-yard touchdown run to close out the win in the fourth quarter. As a team New England ran 23 times, one off a season-low, for a season-worst 79 yards (3.4 average) against a Bengals team that came in ranked 19th in the league in rush defense. James White wasn't productive in his rushes out of passing sets, the undersized back picking up a mere 19 yards on seven attempts. The Cincy front got the better of the Patriots offensive line in the running game as well as the passing game.
PASS DEFENSE: C+
The Patriots opened the game playing a lot of three-safety looks and some soft zone coverages. The scheme didn't work well as Andy Dalton seemed to find open targets more often than not. New England adjusted and went to more three-cornerback sets in the second half, including debut action from Eric Rowe, and things improved a bit. Rowe did have a key pass defense in coverage of A.J. Green in the end zone on third down in the fourth quarter to force a field goal. Still, Dalton completed 21 of 31 passes for 254 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions for a 103.4 passer rating. He was sacked twice, one a key Dont'a Hightower safety in the third quarter that ignited the Patriots to pull ahead. Dalton was able to spread the ball around to eight different players, led by six receptions for 88 yards by Green. Former Patriot Brandon LaFell had two catches for just 13 yards, but did beat Malcolm Butler pretty easily for a 5-yard touchdown reception. New England never got consistent coverage or pass rush on the afternoon, allowing Dalton to stay in the pocket and move the ball pretty consistently through the air, though New England came up with just enough plays to allow its offense to pull away.
RUSH DEFENSE: B -
Coming off a dominating performance on the ground a week earlier in Cleveland, New England's run defense was solid against Cincy. Though the Bengals ran it a total of 32 times for 120 yards (3.8 average), the Patriots held top backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard in check. Hill had just 38 yards on his 13 attempts (2.9 average), while Bernard had just 49 yards on a game-high 15 attempts (3.3). Dalton actually had the longest run of the day on a 15-yard scramble and recorded his team's only touchdown run on an option keeper. New England also got the biggest play of the day on the ground stopping Bernard for no gain on fourth-and-goal from the 1 in the second quarter as Alan Branch and Anthony Johnson notched the second of two stops from the 1 in a three-play span with the Bengals trailing 3-0. Hightower led the Patriots' front in controlling the Cincy ground game, tallying 13 tackles, including 10 solo stops.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
Aside from a growing concern about All-Pro kicker Stephen Gostkowski's early-season struggles, the New England special teams units continue to shine. Gostkowski missed a PAT in the third quarter, snapping his NFL-record streak on extra points in the regular season at 478 dating back to his rookie year in 2006. He has also already missed three field goals this season, matching his total from all of last year. Ryan Allen isn't having any issues at punter, notching a 40.3-yard net on his three chances, including a pair downed inside the 20. New England's return game had maybe its best day of the year with rookie D.J. Foster putting up a 30-yard kickoff return while Julian Edelman averaged 16.3 yards on three punts, including a 23-yard long. Though struggling on field goals and now PATs, Gostkowski continues to lead an impressive kickoff unit. On seven kickoff returns, the Bengals started at the 25 on three touchbacks, as well as at the 16 and 20 on short kicks, with an average drive start at the 23.
Bill Belichick spent the week emphasizing the Bengals' abilities and track record despite their losing record. Early on, it looked like his team may not have been paying attention. Cincy controlled the game early on both sides of the ball, physically winning battles all over the field. Offensively Brady was under too much pressure and the receivers couldn't get open fast enough. But Josh McDaniels adjusted to more quick, underneath routes that ignited the offense in the second quarter and into the second half. That keyed the scoring. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia made a nice adjustment to more cornerbacks on the field with newcomer Eric Rowe. The Patriots lost their composure as a team, drawing a pair of flags in a scrappy fourth quarter, something that will drive Belichick crazy and is sure to be a talking point this week in Foxborough. It wasn't perfect, but overall the Patriots made enough adjustments to the game plan to pull away in the hard-fought victory against a Bengals team that also made its share of mistakes.