Tom Brady had just finished his postgame press conference Sunday when he turned to his right, stepped off the podium and was greeted a familiar grin and outstretched hand waiting on him.
A few seconds later, Rob Gronkowski grasped his quarterback’s hand and pulled him in for an embrace.
“Good job, man,” Gronk said as Brady patted his sure-handed tight end on the back.
It was a moment that has been a long time coming for the New England Patriots.
In many ways the first month of this season has felt like a trip down the rabbit hole for the Patriots’ offense with Brady sitting out the first four-games to serve his “Deflategate” suspension, and Gronk taking a mostly secondary role as he worked his way back from a hamstring injury that kept him sidelined for the first two games.
While Brady dazzled in his season debut last week, Sunday’s 35-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals showcased both him and Gronkowski in a way reminiscent of some of their best previous performances together.
For New England it also comes at the perfect time as it prepare for back-to-back road games, first at AFC North-leading Pittsburgh and then Buffalo, which shutout New England 16-0 on Oct. 2.
“It’s good to be 5-1,” Brady said. “I think we’re at a decent place, so we’ve just got to keep stringing these things together. “There’s a ton of football left.”
Meanwhile the Bengals are heading in exactly the opposite direction. Cincinnati is 2-4 for the first time since 2010, when it finished 4-12 — its worst season under coach Marvin Lewis.
Cincinnati has a good shot at getting things back on track next week when they host winless Cleveland. But the reprieve is short-lived with a game in London against 4-2 Washington the following week.
“We have a lot of season left and we’ve got to get back on track this week,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “We’ve got to take this thing and try to get to 3-4 and then we’ll move from there.”
SELF-INFLICTED WOUNDS: One thing that continues to hold the Bengals back is untimely penalties. They had just seven for 46 yards Sunday, but had a costly one that set up the Patriots first touchdown of the day.
New England was facing three-and-out after Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict sacked Brady for an 8-yard loss on second down, and Brady threw an incomplete pass on third down. But Dre Kirkpatrick was called for an illegal contact penalty, which kept the drive alive. The Patriots then marched 78 plays over next six plays and scored on a 15-yard pass from Brady to James White.
“Whether it be a penalty that sets us back, or more importantly a penalty on defense, whatever it is,” Lewis said. “You know, it’s key to a football game. We’ve got to do a better job.”
FAITH IN DALTON: One thing that isn’t the culprit in the Bengals problems isn’t Dalton, Lewis said.
Dalton finished 21 of 31 for 254 yards and a touchdown, with a 103.4 rating. The task going forward is making his life easier in the pocket, he said.
“What we are doing offensively, Andy is doing a good job taking care of the football, but we have got to start maximizing those possessions, all the time, without him getting in the panic mode,” Lewis said.
GRONK MAD: The Patriots picked up two personal fouls late in the game as the game got chippy.
Gronkowski got called for taunting after a 12-yard catch that would have put New England on the Bengals’ 8 with about eight minutes left. The Patriots tight end said he didn’t say anything — he was just bobbing his head.
The penalty pushed them back to the 23, and they settled for a field goal that made it 28-17.
“I can’t be letting that happen,” Gronkowski said. “It’s a good thing that it didn’t hurt the team in this situation. I mean, we got the win, but down the road it can always hurt the team getting a personal foul.”
At the end of the game, running back LeGarrette Blount was called for unnecessary roughness after scoring on a 1-yard run.
“We’ve got guys who don’t back down from anyone and play hard throughout the whole game,” tight end Martellus Bennett said. “We’re not looking for trouble, but we don’t walk away from trouble, either.”
KICKING IT: New England’s Stephen Gostkowski has been unusually inconsistent after a decade as one of the most automatic kickers in the league. The Patriots placekicker missed an extra point on Sunday, ending a streak of 478 in a row dating back to his rookie season of 2006.
After three straight years of converting more than 90 percent of his field goals, Gostkowski is down to 75 percent this year. He converted on kicks of 46 and 31 yards on Sunday.
AP NFL websites: http://pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL
AP Sports Writer Jimmy Golen contributed to this report.