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Patriots Pounce on Begals Weakness

Patriots against Bengals Monday night was an easy call. Maybe the easiest call all weekend which was like blind men vying for prizes in a shooting gallery.

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[Cincinnati Post]- The New England coach, Bill Belichick, has made a rigorously applied science of his craft, poring over its geometry and game-planning like Bobby Fischer. Monday night against the Bengals, however, his challenge was not quite so complex.

All he had to do was count linebackers.

Cincinnati started the game with four of them, three of whom, late arrivals by way of waivers and release, have never seen the club’s training camp in Georgetown, Ky. The one who has, Landon Johnson, left the game in the second quarter with an eye injury, never to return. He followed Lemar Marshall, who sat out the game’s first play and was injured – Achilles tendon – on the next.

That left Anthony Schlegel, the former Ohio Stater who, before being waived by the Jets and arriving here on Sept. 2, had recorded exactly one NFL tackle, and Dhani Jones, signed on Sept. 19 after he was let go by New Orleans. Belichick, as you might imagine, noticed.

“They changed their game plan as soon as Landon got hurt,” observed John Thornton, the Bengals’ defensive captain. “It changed considerably. They ran the ball a lot more.

“That’s what a good team does. They take advantage of your shortcomings.”

The Patriots are all of that, and the Bengals have plenty of those. Had Tom Brady, New England’s impeccable quarterback, been required to carry the game to Cincinnati’s youthful secondary, it would have been like taking candy from a rookie cornerback.

As it was, Randy Moss, the future Hall of Fame receiver, caught nine passes for 102 yards and a couple touchdowns. But the Patriots, for the most part, were perfectly content to put the ball into the hands of their reserve running back, the unspectacular veteran Sammy Morris, who – in emergency duty for injured starter Laurence Maroney – carted it 21 times for 117 yards.

It was all too easy for Belichick’s boys, and for the NFL. In a league that prides itself on competitive balance, this one made a parody of parity.

To be fair, the Bengals would perhaps have put up a stiffer struggle if their second line of defense had been at least half intact. Already, they were missing starters Ahmad Brooks and Rashad Jeanty and sometime starter Caleb Miller, on top of long-goners David Pollack and Odell Thurman. The patchwork offensive line, meanwhile, has become (Paul) Alexander’s rag-tag band.

And yet, New England was missing all-pro defenders Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison. Without them, the Patriots had little trouble taking the Bengals out of their offensive persona.

Cincinnati’s problem had nothing to do with the absence of running back Rudi Johnson. In his stead, Kenny Watson averaged 4.2 yards on 13 rushes.

It had everything to do, however, with the Pats’ pestering of Chad Johnson, who entered the game leading the NFL in receiving yardage. He left it trailing Moss by 10.

During the week, Johnson had expressed his excitement over a game plan that he described as “very, very, very good.” By halftime, though, he was in a heated dispute with Carson Palmer, whose potential touchdown pass to Ocho Cinco was intercepted at the goal line. Seven points at the end of the second quarter would have significantly altered the nature of the game, making it a three-point affair at the break. It never again got that close.

Palmer, as is his wont, took the blame for the misplay, and apologized for venting at Johnson, who appeared to run his route in a way that the quarterback was not anticipating. “I lost my cool,” Palmer said. The Patriots had not only gotten to the ball, but gotten to the Bengals.

At the unseemly end, which was 34-13, there were lessons aplenty in the way the better team went about its business. Afterward, Marvin Lewis blasted the Bengals for their selfishness and misplaced will.

“It’s not all about you on every single play,” is the way he described his postgame message, which reverberated through the locker-room walls. “You’ve got to understand that.”

Palmer, for one, understood. “We’re not playing as a team,” he said, “and it’s definitely evident playing against one that does play as a team. They don’t play as individuals. They play as a unit. And that’s where we need to get to.”

Fortunately, there’s time for it. The Bengals will enjoy the privilege of not playing next week. It will allow for healing and possibly personnel changes, which Lewis alluded to in his late-night press conference. And it will refresh the club for a stretch of games that don’t figure to match the first four in degree of difficulty.

The next two opponents are the Chiefs and Jets. Victories over them would even the Bengals’ record at 3-3 when they play Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium.

“Looking at our schedule,” Palmer said, “there’s not a game on there that we should lose, point-blank. If we play well, we’ll win every game. If we play like we did these last three weeks, we won’t.”

It was basic football talk on his part, and it might have sounded just a little silly after an evening of utter humiliation. But the Bengals have 13 days now to count their linebackers and come up with a workable sum. By the time they take the field in Kansas City, their cornerbacks will be two weeks older.

And the Patriots will be taking advantage of somebody else.

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