IT TOOK almost three hours to get to that point on what became a soggy afternoon in Cincinnati, but ultimately the story of Sunday from the Patriots’ offense could be summed in about six seconds — or however long it took the wobbly duck Tom Brady lobbed toward Aaron Dobson to instead wind up in the hands of Bengals cornerback Adam Jones.
It was ugly. It was off the mark. It was ineffective. All apply whether discussing the game’s final pass or the result, a 13-6 loss for the previously unbeaten Patriots, who failed to score a touchdown for the first time since September 2009 while being held to fewer than 300 yards of offense for the second time in less than a month.
“You can’t kick two field goals and expect to win many games in the NFL,” Brady said, “so we can do a lot better job than that — we’re going to have to if we want to win these games. We just can’t (make) silly execution errors, mental mistakes. It’s hard to drive the ball down the field if you’re always making mistakes.”
The Patriots proved that, so struggling to sustain possession that they didn’t have a drive of more than 35 yards until the fourth quarter. A big reason for that was their woeful performance on third down, converting just one of 12, but the bigger factor was the poor plays that put the Pats in those predicaments to begin with.
When New England got the ball after BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ short touchdown run put the Bengals ahead 13-3 with 9:21 to play, the Patriots had attempted nine offensive possessions. Five were doomed by a negative-yardage play that led to a punt, and another finished with a LaGarrette Blount fumble.
Each of their first two possessions was interrupted by a sack. As has been the case before, the Patriots’ offense had trouble finding its rhythm when its opponent was able to reach and rattle Brady early on.
The Bengals on Sunday became the seventh team to register two sacks of Brady in the first quarter of a game since 2008. In those games, the Patriots are 4-3, and have only once scored more than 27 points. Their average output over the other 69 games is 33.1 points.
“It wasn’t our best day of execution today,” Brady said. “I thought we certainly had some opportunities there in the first half. Just had too many times where one negative play really took us out of field position.
“It just wasn’t very good execution. It’s a very good defense. They put pressure on you in a lot of areas, and our execution needed to be really good and it wasn’t.”
The Patriots finally started executing in the fourth quarter, when they moved the ball more than half the field. But even then, that was more a couple big plays than it was sustained execution. And it fizzled out before it really became what the Patriots needed.
Though they moved the ball 75 yards on their best series of the day, 53 of that came on a catch-and-run completion to Dobson, and 21 more resulted from Brady’s hookup with Danny Amendola (who returned from injury after missing three weeks).
Amendola was ruled down inside the 1-yard line after his grab, but the Patriots failed on a run and two passes to get in from there. It was indicative of their consistent struggle to execute. All they needed to get back within three points of Cincinnati was about two feet, and they didn’t trust their offensive line or their running backs enough to give them more than one chance to plow it in.
They didn’t trust their tight ends enough to get open, so they threw to Nate Solder on a tackle-eligible play on second down. Then Julian Edelman — all 5-foot-11 of him — couldn’t come down with what was essentially a jump ball on third down. Then they didn’t bother trying to run a play on fourth down, opting for the field goal.
They were so close to the end zone, that wouldn’t even have a been a choice for Patriots teams of the recent past. But on this day, it seemed to be the right call, considering that other than the aforementioned chunk plays to Dobson and Amendola, New England’s offense gained a grand total of 174 yards on 58 snaps, an average of just 3.0 per play.
For context, consider that Jacksonville entered Week 5 with the worst offense in football, and the Jaguars were generating 3.6 yards per attempt.
“We had plenty of opportunity and chances in the red area to get in. It was just a poor performance all around,” Brady said after finishing 18-for-38, and seeing his 52-game touchdown streak come to an end. He didn’t absolve himself from blame after completing less than 50 percent of his passes for the second time this season. That matches the number of times he’d done that in the regular season since December 2007.
“There were plenty from the quarterback standpoint,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I can do better. I’ll work on those things this week.”
It’ll be important that he does, considering the unbeaten Saints are headed for Foxborough with the game’s best offense outside of Denver. As well as the Patriots defense has played, and that continued in Cincy, that’ll be an extremely difficult game for New England to win without scoring 20 points. More likely, they’ll need 30.
The assumed return of Rob Gronkowski should help. So should another week for Amendola to get back in shape. But the Patriots can’t expect to win if things are as ugly, off-the-mark and ineffective as they were Sunday.
Next week. Or any week, really.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.