FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens grabbed the spotlight as charismatic members of the Bengals receiving corps. Now they’ll see how that partnership works on the field in the regular season.
The close friends and downfield threats team up Sunday when Cincinnati visits the New England Patriots, who are relieved to have the key to their passing game, Tom Brady, in one piece after he was involved in a two-car accident Thursday morning.
The quarterback was unhurt and didn’t miss practice.
“I don’t think anything really affects him,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said.
His safety is critical to the Patriots, whose young defense struggled in the exhibition season. That could continue against Ochocinco and Owens.
“It’s going to be a freaking symphony out there. We’re going to go hand in hand,” Ochocinco said. “A lot of people are waiting on us not to work and all this other hoopla or whatever. We’re making each other better, pushing one another.”
The Bengals and quarterback Carson Palmer had a mediocre passing attack last season, ranked 26th in the NFL. So Owens, third in NFL history in yards receiving, was signed.
“I feel like I’m a rookie because everything is new to me as far as this offense, the routes that I’m running, everything,” Owens said. “As the season goes along, we’ll progress as an offense and I’ll be able to progress with my chemistry with Carson.”
The Patriots have a real rookie in the secondary, cornerback Devin McCourty. The first-round draft pick is expected to start with second-year pro Darius Butler on the other side.
That certainly seems like a matchup that favors the Bengals.
“If there are opportunities to take advantage of the youth then I think Chad and myself and this offense, especially with Carson leading the way, then we have to exploit those situations,” Owens said.
But with coach Bill Belichick designing the defense, the young cornerbacks should get plenty of help. Safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders are solid, although the Patriots pass rush remains suspect after struggling last year.
Jerod Mayo, the Patriots outstanding inside linebacker, acknowledged there will be pressure on McCourty and Butler.
“But, at the same time, I think they’ll do fine,” Mayo said. “They’ve been preparing well. They’ve been practicing well.”
Despite all the attention on Owens and Ochocinco (given the nicknames “Batman” and “Robin” by Ochocinco), there are some other pretty talented receivers in the game. Randy Moss and Wes Welker, back from torn knee ligaments sustained in the last regular-season game of 2009, can be just as dangerous, if not more so.
“There’s only one Randy Moss,” Brady said. “He’s probably the greatest downfield receiver in the history of the NFL. I mean, those catches that he makes when he runs 65 yards down the field and you throw it and he just runs and catches it. That’s impossible to do. I’ve asked him, ‘How do you do that?’ And he says, ‘I don’t know, man. I’ve been doing it for a long time.’ “
Moss has averaged 83 catches for 1,255 yards and 16 touchdowns in three seasons with the Patriots. But he said this week he feels unwanted because the team hasn’t worked on an extension to his contract that ends after this year.
Welker’s recovery in time for the opener was unexpected. He underwent surgery in February but worked out during training camp and played in exhibition games with a brace on his left knee.
“There is a lot of talent on the field,” Owens said. “You see what Chad has been able to accomplish over his career and I think Randy and myself, those things kind of speak for themselves. You look at the things Welker has been able to do over the last four or five years. (It’s) an awesome thing to see.”
The Bengals, with a superior running game, have a better chance to keep the Patriots off balance.
Cedric Benson missed 3½ games last year and still rushed for 1,251 yards. Excluding the four games he sat out entirely or partially, he averaged 102.4 yards rushing.
“We have a great running back and a great offensive line,” Palmer said. “We’re going to be a tough, grinding football team.”
New England’s running backs are unchanged from last year but none has emerged as a breakaway threat. Laurence Maroney hasn’t lived up to his status as a first-round draft pick in 2006, Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris are reliable veterans, Kevin Faulk is used more in passing situations and BenJarvus Green-Ellis has limited experience.
And the Patriots offense is missing a key blocker. Two-time Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins, a restricted free agent, hasn’t reported because of a contract dispute.
Brady “is not a big runner,” Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko said. “When you get in his face, he tends to make mistakes and check the ball down or throw it out of bounds. That’s one of the keys to our success.”
Brady would love to have Mankins protecting him, but said, “We have to move on and play a game this weekend.”
Besides, Mankins can’t play cornerback against Ochocinco and Owens.
“A lot of people say, ‘How do they work together?’ “ Ochocinco said. “What we’re going to do is, we’re going to prove and show you how we work.”
— The NFL is off to a strong start in its TV ratings after drawing big numbers last season.
NFL NOTEBOOK: Thursday’s Vikings-Saints opener earned the highest rating for a regular-season, prime-time game in 12 years. NBC said Friday that New Orleans’ 14-9 win in a rematch of the NFC championship drew a 16.5 rating and 28 share. That’s the best in prime time in the regular season since a Minnesota-Green Bay game in 1998. It’s by far the highest rating for a Thursday night opener since the NFL started such games in 2002. The previous best was a 12.9/22 for Jets-Redskins in 2003. The game drew a 60.0/78 in New Orleans and 43.8/64 in Minneapolis. Packers fans are clearly still following Brett Favre closely: The rating was 33.3/52 in Milwaukee. Ratings represent the percentage of all homes with televisions tuned into a program. Shares represent the percentage of all homes with TVs in use at the time.