Palmer will try to lead the Cincinnati Bengals to their second straight 4-0 start and hand Brady and the New England Patriots rare back-to-back losses Sunday when the teams meet at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Patriots (2-1) have won three Super Bowls the past five years, but have traditionally struggled against the Bengals, long considered one of the NFL’s weaker teams before Palmer’s breakout 2005 season. New England leads the all-time series 11-8, but seven of those losses have been by double digits.
Palmer matched a career high with four TD passes as Cincinnati (3-0) responded to the pressure of a statement game with a 28-20 victory over the reigning Super Bowl champion Steelers 28-20 last Sunday in Pittsburgh.
“In the past, we couldn’t have won a game like this,” Bengals offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. “It would have been too big for us. Not this team. Not now.”
Making his first start against the Steelers since blowing out his knee on his first pass completion in last season’s AFC wild-card game, Palmer nearly offset his four scoring passes by getting sacked six times, fumbling three times and being intercepted twice.
“I played bad,” he said. “I threw four touchdown passes, but on one T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) made a phenomenal play. Your quarterback can’t play that (badly). I need to step up my game and play better next time. I’m just fortunate we got the win.”
Palmer, who finished with 193 yards, threw second-quarter scoring passes of 16 and 3 yards to Chris Henry that staked Cincinnati to a 14-3 halftime advantage. After the Steelers rallied for a 17-14 lead heading into the fourth quarter, Palmer then connected with Houshmandzadeh—who missed the first two regular-season games with a heel injury—with TD passes of 9 and 30 yards in a 54-second span.
So far, Palmer has completed 64.7 percent of his passes (55 of 85) for 672 yards and six TDs. In Palmer’s first three games in 2005, he connected in 71.1 percent of his passes (69 for 97) for 786 yards and eight scores.
“Offensively, we do have a high standard for ourselves. When we don’t move the ball and score every time, we are a little bit down. We think that we expect better of ourselves,” Palmer said.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said his team can accept being labeled one of the AFC’s elite teams, but he realizes there’s room for improvement.
“It’s tough in this league,” Lewis said. “And that’s the way we like it. The chance to play games like this is the reason why our guys have been sweating their butts off since we started workouts in April.”
New England is coming off a 17-7 loss to Denver a week ago, and is in jeopardy of losing consecutive games for the first time since December 2002—a span of 52 contests and the third-longest streak since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Brady, who matched a career high with 55 attempts, finished with 320 yards, including an 8-yard scoring pass to Doug Gabriel. Despite his 13th career 300-yard game, Brady was disappointed with his effort.
“Go watch the film,” he said. “It was certainly not the receivers’ performance as to why the passing game wasn’t great this past weekend.”
The limited time together took on greater scrutiny Sept. 11, when the Patriots traded holdout wide receiver Deion Branch—also a Super Bowl MVP— to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for a 2007 first-round draft pick.
The lack of consistency among the receivers has contributed to New England’s struggle to score points. The Patriots have just six touchdowns and are 18th in scoring at 16.7 points per game, while the Bengals are fourth with an average of 28.3 points.
Patriots running back Corey Dillon will make his first appearance in Cincinnati since being traded prior to the 2004 season for a second-round pick. Dillon, who is the Bengals’ all-time leading rusher with 8,061 yards from 1997-2003, enters this game with 10,598 yards—46 shy of Ricky Watters for 15th on the all-time list.
He faced the Bengals in Foxborough, Mass., in 2004 and had 88 yards and a touchdown in New England’s 35-28 victory.
Bengals linebacker Odell Thurman—the team’s leading tackler in 2005—was supposed to complete his four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse with this contest. On Wednesday, though, the NFL suspended him the remainder of the season following his arrest early Monday morning on a drunken driving charge.
“I think everybody saw that and realized at some point you’re not going to get a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance,” Palmer said.