Hold off on those New England Patriots eulogies. Just a week after being embarrassed in another nationally televised contest, the Pats and quarterback Tom Brady answered the bell with a rout of their own, beating the Bengals 43-17. And their supposedly declining quarterback Brady added his name to the NFL record books again by becoming the sixth QB in league history to top 50,000 career passing yards.
Three thoughts on New England's impressive, cathartic victory:
1. The final undefeated falls ... in Week 5
Aside from an increasing number of blowouts in prime time, the first five weeks of the NFL season have been utterly tantalizing. With Arizona and Cincinnati falling Sunday, there is not an undefeated team anywhere to be found around the league. A mere eight of 32 teams sit more than a game out of first.
So, are the Patriots back? Were the Bengals exposed?
Drawing any sweeping conclusions would be no more prudent now than after Cincinnati's Week 1 win in Baltimore or New England's Week 4 collapse at Kansas City.
What is safe to say is that the Patriots will be relieved by this performance. They played such an uninspired game last Monday in a 41-14 loss to the Chiefs that Bill Belichick was asked if he might consider a change at QB, then the whole team spent the week trying to drown out the skeptics.
For as awful as they looked in Week 4, the Patriots were that sharp Sunday. The win kept New England tied for first atop the AFC East, with a trip to division co-leader Buffalo looming next Sunday.
"It was a great opportunity for us," Brady told NBC's Michele Tafoya postgame of the matchup with Cincinnati. "A lot of guys dug really deep this week. Coming off the tough loss like we did, it was a good week."
The Bengals are still in first place, too, with a half-game edge in the AFC North on Baltimore and Pittsburgh. This loss will raise all the old questions about Andy Dalton's ability to win a big game or Cincinnati's ability to compete with the conference's top dogs come January.
Again, time will tell. The Patriots were the better team by a healthy margin Sunday night. But no one appears safe this season in what looks to be a wide-open, league-wide race.
2. Cincinnati missed Vontaze Burfict ... and New England knew it
A successful Shane Vereen draw play on 3rd-and-16. Rob Gronkowski slipping untouched off the line into an open patch of field. The list of miscues in the Bengals' front seven -- and particularly in their second level, the linebacking corps -- droned on and on Sunday night.
Vontaze Burfict alone may not have stemmed the tide (and Patriots fans will remind you that their team was without LB Dont'a Hightower), but Cincinnati's defense was lost without its Pro Bowl linebacker.
The Bengals rolled Tennessee in Week 3 without Burfict. It's a long way from that matchup to the one they found Sunday, against a Tom Brady out to silence his critics and a Patriots team desperate for a solid performance before their home fans. The 43 points New England scored topped the 33 combined points Cincinnati gave up over its 3-0 start.
While Burfict may not be a household name, that Pro Bowl berth in 2013 was hardly a fluke. He finished with a whopping 171 tackles while playing more than 1,000 snaps as a three-down linebacker.
So, as good teams and smart coaching staffs are wont to do, the Patriots made sure to lean on the Bengals' trouble spot. The results: more than 220 yards rushing and 185 combined yards receiving from TEs Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright, who did much of their work between the hash marks, where Burfict otherwise would have roamed.
Burfict is not worth the 26-point margin of victory New England claimed. He still could have provided his defense a better shot.
3. Darrelle Revis slows A.J. Green
The first pass that Andy Dalton fired A.J. Green's way in this one was a deep shot down the right sideline. Darrelle Revis came away with the football. Granted, he was flagged for a (questionable) illegal contact penalty, but the Patriots' cornerback still served notice on the play that he planned to live in Green's hip pocket.
And for the most part, he did. The Patriots allowed Revis to follow Green around, no matter the Bengals' alignment, giving their star defender a shot to play man-to-man coverage, rather than box him into a zone.
"He's a great player," said Revis of Green. "I executed every down on him, just was able to play aggressive."
Though Green still averaged 16.2 yards on his five catches, the home-run plays were not there ... at least when Revis was on the field. Revis briefly left with an apparent hamstring injury, and Dalton hit Green for a 17-yard TD on the ensuing play.
That score was about Green's only real highlight. And it was a terrific forced fumble by Revis following a Green catch that helped New England drive home the dagger. The turnover came late in the first half, and the Patriots followed with a field goal to take a 20-3 lead into the locker room.
Green finished with five catches for 81 yards, his first game below 100 yards receiving in three tries this season.