FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Tom Brady fired a pass for a 20-yard gain on the very first play.
It was like a dart that punctured the criticism that followed him after his offense’s awfulness in the previous game.
Over-the-hill? An offensive line that can’t protect him? Receivers who can’t get open?
New England Patriots 43, the no-longer-unbeaten Cincinnati Bengals 17.
Take that, Brady seemed to be saying from the start of Sunday night’s rout.
And his New England Patriots teammates never doubted he would make that statement.
“He’s still a young buck and he has a lot in his tank left,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said of the 15-year veteran. “I’m proud to be playing with him.”
“He played with a lot of emotion,” special teams star Matthew Slater said. “You can’t say enough good things about our leader, our quarterback, really the heartbeat of this team.”
But what about all that criticism Brady took after a the second biggest loss of his career just six days earlier, 41-14 to the Kansas City Chiefs?
“I didn’t criticize him,” right tackle Sebastian Vollmer said to a round of laughter.
After that first completion to Brandon LaFell, Brady pointed to the receiver in recognition. Three plays later on his second pass, he connected with Tim Wright for a 30-yard gain. On the next play, Brady abandoned his reluctance to run and scrambled up the middle for 6 yards.
“We were all ready to go out there and play a great game of football,” Brady said.
The drive finished with a 1-yard touchdown run by Stevan Ridley. The second possession ended with a 17-yard scoring pass from Brady to Wright.
Brady went to the sideline and broke into a big smile after Wright came up from behind and hugged him. In Kansas City, Brady had slumped on the bench with a look of frustration.
A 27-point loss one week, a 26-point win the next.
“We played two different teams,” coach Bill Belichick said.
After two surprising results, the Patriots (3-2) know another one could be coming Sunday when they visit Buffalo.
So they’re not taking anything for granted after the Bills upset the Detroit Lions 17-14.
“Big win for Buffalo on Sunday, came back on the road against Detroit,” Belichick said. They “really showed some impressive mental toughness as a team and so I’m sure there will be a lot of energy in the stadium this weekend.”
Just as there was in Gillette Stadium on Sunday night against the Bengals (3-1).
Fans roared after the first touchdown. They chanted Brady’s name after the second. That touchdown came one play after Brady’s 27-yard completion to Gronkowski made him the sixth quarterback to throw for 50,000 yards in his career.
“I think we’ve played hard a lot this year, but we were able to execute things a little bit better,” Belichick said. “Of course, there was more emotion and energy as we were making plays, especially in the first — well, throughout the game — but especially in the first quarter.”
The Patriots’ priority was to get off to a strong start against a team that trailed for just 48 seconds this season and had allowed only 11 points per game. With more than three minutes left in the first quarter, the Patriots already led 14-0.
“When you had the result that we had (against the Chiefs) as a team, I think everybody rallied around each other,” Belichick said. “I mean, who else is there to rally around? That’s all we have: guys that can go out there and play and make a difference.”
The Patriots gained 505 yards and held the Bengals to 320.
Brady threw for 292 yards. Ridley’s 113 yards led a 220-yard ground game. Stephen Gostkowski kicked five field goals. Kyle Arrington returned a fumbled kickoff 9 yards for a touchdown.
The team that couldn’t do much right in Kansas City got solid performances in every phase of the game.
“You can just see the intensity that we had as the offense went out first,” cornerback Darrelle Revis said. “We kind of handled that on the defensive side as well.”
It all started with the quarterback.
And the “Brady’s Slipping” chorus faded into a faint, out-of-tune echo.
One fan even held up a sign: “WE STILL BELIEVE IN BRADY.”
The Patriots always did.
“We’ll go to the ends of the earth for our guy,” Slater said. “He’s our leader and as he goes, we go.”