The Bengals’ Undoing
The Fine Fifteen

The Bengals’ Undoing

Cincinnati is off to a slow start and trying to shake its reputation for being an undisciplined team. Sunday’s loss didn’t help the cause

An official separates Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game.
Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe/Getty Images/

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Moments after the Bengals’ attempt to ruin Tom Brady’s post-suspension homecoming had sputtered, Adam Jones walked slowly off the Gillette Stadium turf. A light sprinkling of plastic bags and an assortment of trash rained down on him as he approached the tunnel leading to the visitors’ locker room—and so did the jeers.

“No discipline!” one fan screamed above all the noise. “No discipline!”

The veteran cornerback stopped and looked up at the fan, staring for a few hard seconds. Then he kept walking toward the locker room.

At this time last year, when they were still undefeated and on their way to an 8-0 start, the Bengals weren’t hearing this kind of talk. But after their 2015 season ended with a meltdown in the playoffs against Pittsburgh, opposing teams and fans are trying to get inside the Bengals’ heads. Cincinnati went to New England reeling from a loss in Dallas, looking for a statement win that could put their season back on track. The Bengals left with a 35-17 loss that reaffirmed their reputation as a team that can’t seem to get out of its own way.

There were a few key moments that turned the game away from Cincinnati’s favor. One was an illegal contact penalty on cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick on third-and-18 when the pass fell incomplete. It kept the Patriots on the field in the first half—and they scored a touchdown. “Cheesy,” Kirkpatrick said. There was also a four-minute sequence in the third quarter that blew the game open for New England.

Dalton picked apart the Pats’ zone defense after halftime and gave his team a 14-10 lead with a razor-sharp pass in the back of the end zone to Brandon LaFell. The defense stopped the Patriots and got the ball back. But on the Bengals’ next possession, right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi was called for holding, backing the Bengals up near their own end zone. On the next play, Dalton was sacked for a safety. Ogbuehi was benched by coach Marvin Lewis to “settle down,” and the Patriots scored two more touchdowns in rapid succession.

By the end of the third quarter, New England led 25-14 and the Bengals were on their way to a 2-4 start. By the time they were in the postgame locker room, the Bengals were hyped up on the wrong kinds of emotions.

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Vontaze Burfict, with a small cut on the side of his neck and a quarter-sized gash on his elbow, was loudly recounting the back-and-forth that had happened with Rob Gronkowski during a fourth-quarter drive. Gronkowski had spent much of the day running through the Bengals’ defense (seven catches, 162 yards, one touchdown), and after a 29-yard catch he tumbled over Jones. After getting up, Gronkowski stood over the downed cornerback and shouted at him. “He was like, ‘How’s that s--- feel, little guy?’ ” Burfict told his teammates.

“That’s why Taze got mad!” Jones called out from several lockers over. 

Burfict, who recently served a three-game suspension for his helmet-to-helmet blow of Antonio Brown in last season’s playoff loss, stepped up to Gronkowski, and they lightly bumped helmets. Two plays later, after the catch that gave him a career-high for single-game receiving yards, Gronkowski stood over Kirkpatrick jawing—and this time, he was flagged for taunting.

A few plays earlier, the TV cameras had caught Burfict delivering a low hit on Martellus Bennett. The tight end said Burfict apologized, but whether intentional or not, a low hit away from the play could still draw a fine from the NFL. On Monday, ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss tweeted a clip from the coaches’ film that alleged to show Burfict stomping on running back LeGarrette Blount after a one-yard touchdown in the game’s final minutes.

After the game, Burfict was advised by a veteran teammate to simply tell reporters, “Just say, ‘Hat’s off to them.’ ” But he elected not to speak to the media. So did Jones. The Bengals players who did talk didn’t have many answers about why things are going wrong.

“A couple years ago, we were money on fades,” A.J. Green lamented. Kirkpatrick questioned both of the penalties called on him, the illegal contact and a 15-yard face mask in the fourth quarter. Said LaFell, an ex-Patriot, “You can’t depend on the refs to give you no calls in this place.” The most reasoned explanation came from Eric Winston, the veteran offensive tackle who replaced Ogbuehi after the holding call.

“Coach told me, there are moments in every game when you have to make a play that will change the trajectory of the game,” he said. “Getting stuffed on the goal line is not making those plays. Getting a holding call and then a safety is not making those plays. Sure, everybody is frustrated. This team had such high expectations, and now we are standing at 2-4. We have a lot of talent, and our guys have to decide, are we going to do this?”

Until the Bengals establish a different identity, they’ll still be trying to outrun that “undisciplined” one.

THE FINE FIFTEEN 

1. Minnesota (5-0). LW: 1. This week’s game at Philly has lost some of its luster with the Eagles’ stumbles the past two weeks.  

2. New England (5-1). LW: 2. Tom Brady came back in Week 5. A healthy Rob Gronkowski came back in Week 6.

3. Seattle (4-1). LW: 7. Consider this milestone: Russell Wilson, third-round pick, is the fastest player in NFL history to reach 50 wins.

4. Dallas (5-1). LW: 8. After that win, Cowboys brass would have a hard time convincing the locker room to put in Tony Romo.

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5. Atlanta (4-2). LW: 4. We can all agree, the Falcons got robbed. Still don’t think pass interference should be reviewable. This was an egregious miss, but as a matter of course, judgment calls shouldn’t be held up to slow motion.

6. Denver (4-2). LW: 5. Gary Kubiak’s absence certainly played a role in the loss. The Broncos weren’t just missing their head coach, they were missing their primary offensive play-caller.

7. Pittsburgh (4-2). LW: 3. They gave up 204 rushing yards to whom? Jay Ajayi? The Roethlisberger injury is a blow, but equally concerning is the play of the defense.

8. Buffalo (4-2). LW: 11. Complementary football going on up in Orchard Park. Offense plays better, and so does the defense.

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9. Kansas City (3-2). LW: 12. They’ve been hot and cold this season, but this was the kind of performance that backs up their high expectations for this season.

10. Green Bay (3-2). LW: 6. Aaron Rodgers has never been scrutinized like this. A big question: How will a guy who has a reputation for being a little sensitive respond?

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11. Washington (4-2). LW: 13. A big reason they’ve won four straight is this impressive streak: Defense hasn’t allowed a second-half TD during that span.

12. Philadelphia (3-2). LW: 9. The Lane Johnson suspension affected the Eagles immediately. Now, they’ll face the four best teams in the NFC over the next five weeks: Vikes, Cowboys, Falcons and Seahawks.

13. Oakland (4-2). LW: 10. A few weeks ago in Baltimore, the Raiders defense thought it was turning the corner. They’ve got lots of new pieces on that side of the ball, and they just haven’t seemed to coalesce.

14. New York Giants (3-3). LW: 19. There are players worth the headache and those that aren’t. The 66-yard TD catch is why Odell Beckham, Jr., is worth the headache.

15. Houston (4-2). LW: 17. I was driving back from Foxborough on Sunday night, but shout-out to my mom for giving me a play-by-play of SNF over the phone while I was in the car. Her astute observation, sometime early in the third quarter: “OK, they’re handing the ball off …you know, most of the Texans’ best plays are when they hand the ball off.” She might have a future in this business.

Also receiving consideration:

16. Arizona (3-3). LW: 16.
17. Baltimore (3-3). LW: 14.
18. Cincinnati (2-4). LW: 15.
19. Detroit (3-3). LW: UR.
20. Los Angeles (3-3). LW: 18.

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