Thirty-four thoughts on the Patriots’ 34-13 win over the Bengals …
1. Too often this season, the Patriots’ best offense has been anything but its offense. One special teams squad or another seems to make a huge play every other week. The defense has five touchdowns this season (Julian Edelman and Sony Michel lead the offense with 6 each). For so many years during this two-decade dynasty, the Patriots have been a team driven foremost by Tom Brady and the offense. These are different times, and it’s never been as clear as it was Sunday in their 34-13 win over the Bengals.
2. This seemed like the ideal matchup for Brady and the Patriots to come out and demonstrate that this offense – which had scored in the teens for three of its last four games and hadn’t scored more than 22 points since Week 8 against the Browns – was at least making real progress. Cincinnati came in with the league’s 31st-ranked defense and nothing to play for. For an early moment, it looked like that’s exactly what was happening, with the Patriots marching 75 yards on eight plays on an especially creative and efficient drive for a 7-0 lead.
3. But the offense struggled from its second possession until … well, until the rest of the team made sure it wouldn’t have to be counted upon to deliver a win. It was the defense that took away any hope by the 1-12 Bengals that they might pull off the upset of the NFL season. Stephon Gilmore enhanced his already rock-solid candidacy for NFL defensive player of the year with a pair of interceptions, including a pick-six in the third quarter that finally put the Patriots ahead safely at 27-10.
4. And three of the Patriots’ 13 first-half points came on a Nick Folk field goal three plays after Justin Bethel’s recovery of a muffed punt, a very Bengals-like blunder that Brady and the offense still could not capitalize upon. The Patriots ended a two-game losing streak, picked up their 11th win, and clinched a playoff berth for the 11th straight season. In the moment, those are achievements worth appreciating. But nothing that happened Sunday with the offense beyond the first drive suggested their problems are solved.
5. OK, there was one positive development on offense: The Patriots remembered to involve rookie receiver N’Keal Harry, and he delivered. Harry had a nifty 10-yard run on the Patriots’ first possession, and later added a 12-yard run. He also had two catches on four targets, scoring the touchdown that put the Patriots up 20-10 in the third quarter.
6. Harry’s final numbers (15 receiving yards) weren’t spectacular, and he was called for an offensive pass interference late, but his performance was notable in good ways. This is one of those times in which fans’ please – “use Player X more, Josh, c’mon!” – were actually proven justified.
7. The Bengals revealed their Bengalness (synonym for ineptitude, look it up) a couple of different ways in the second half. Which one do you prefer? Andy Dalton continuing to throw in Gilmore’s direction in the fourth quarter after he’d picked him off twice and broken up two more passes? Or the Bengals getting called for three penalties on a single play in the fourth quarter, negating a Mohamed Sanu fumble?
8. Actually, Dalton didn’t have a whole lot of luck in the second half no matter where he threw the ball. J.C. Jackson joined Gilmore in the two-interception club. Dalton finished with four picks and just 151 passing yards. I wonder what Heisman winner Joe Burrow thinks about spending his early 20s in Cincinnati.
9. The Patriots did end up with impressive rushing totals, picking up 175 yards on 32 carries, for 5.5 yards per pop. Sony Michel led the way with 89 yards on 19 carries. That’s the most yardage he’s had in a game since Week 5 against the Redskins, when he picked up 91 yards on 16 attempts.
10. Brady finished with underwhelming stats, completing 15 of 29 passes for 128 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He finished with fewer yards per passing attempt than (4.4) the Patriots running game averaged per carry. That’s not really what you’re going for there.
11. The Andrew Catalon/James Lofton/Amanda Balionis broadcast team is pretty far down the CBS depth chart, and I suspect far more familiar to Bengals fans than Patriots fans. I thought they were fine, though Lofton was premature in talking about how the Bengals were wearing out the Patriots defense with 3 minutes and 30 second left in the first quarter.
12. I did laugh when Lofton made this convoluted analogy about Brady’s ability to sell a fake and how he’s handsome and thus might be a good actor in “blockbusters” when his career is over … and Catalon responded with the awkward silence Lofton’s take deserved.
13. One of the Patriots’ best plays of the days didn’t count. On third and 3 on the first snap of the second quarter, Brady went deep to Harry, who made a spectacular leaping catch for 36 yards. One problem: Julian Edelman had twitched or something before the snap, drawing a 5-yard false start penalty. Still, a further sign of what Harry can do.
14. The CBS broadcast noted four minutes into the second quarter that Brady had been hit four times while Dalton hadn’t been hit yet. The second part seemed accurate, but anecdotally it seemed like Brady had been hit much more than that. He was 6 of 14 passing at that point, and he rarely had anything resembling a clean pocket in the first half after the first drive.
15. A thought while watching Dalton lead the Bengals to a 10-7 lead in the first quarter without facing much pressure: Haven’t heard much Jamie Collins for defensive player of the year talk lately. He was a beast early the season, but he doesn’t have a QB hit, let alone a sack, since Week 8 against Cleveland.
16. Collins played a role he would have preferred to avoid on the Bengals’ game-tying touchdown drive on their first possession when Joe Mixon slipped from his grasp in the backfield on what turned out to be a 29-yard run. The Bengals would go on to score a touchdown on their first possession of a game for their first time this season.
17. Mixon had his second-best game of the season, with 136 yards on 25 carries. He had 146 yards last week against the Browns. I suppose that matters if he’s on your fantasy football team or something.
18. The Patriots came in with the fourth-ranked run defense in the league (93 yards per game), so it came as a surprise that a) the Bengals ran on their first eight plays and b) picked up 67 yards on those runs, including Mixon’s 29 yarder. The Bengals did not throw on that first drive until Dalton found tight end Cethan Carter for his first career catch, an 8-yard touchdown.
19. I think we can eliminate all talk about the Patriots being an all-time great defense at this point. I’m not sure all-time great defenses don’t give up touchdowns to guys named Cethan Carter. But it still should be a very, very good one, one that turned this game around and one that is capable of taking the Patriots deep into the playoffs if the offense can find competence and consistency with some regularity. They’re not the ’85 Bears, but they’re the best the league has to offer this year.
20. The Damn-I-Miss-Gronk moment of the day? Brady finding Matt LaCosse wide open down the left seam in the second quarter for … 14 yards. It was a classic Gronk route, and one he probably would have taken the rest of the way to the end zone. LaCosse got chopped down at the Bengals 28. Gronk would have been chucking guys out of the club all the way to paydirt.
21. Brady was under siege in the first half, and perhaps his receivers struggle to get open, but the reality is that he’s missing throws and it’s OK to say it. With 54 second left in the first half, he overshot a wide-open Sanu on second and 8 that would have gone for a sure touchdown. After a third-down sack, the Patriots settled for a Nick Folk field goal and a 13-10 lead at the half. It would have been 17-10 had Brady made a better throw.
22. I also thought Brady threw the ball way too hard on a Sanu drop in the first half, though that’s ultimately on the receiver. And he threw a sinker to Sony Michel for a drop on what would have been a sure touchdown early in the third quarter. That came one play after Michel, who isn’t exactly Shane Vereen in Super Bowl XLIX when it comes to making plays out of the backfield, made a nice play on a short catch and run.
23. The Patriots did get a touchdown on the next play, with Brady – who actually had more than a second or two to throw for once – finding an improvising Harry in the back of the end zone for a 7-yard TD catch and a 20-10 lead. Have we mentioned enough that the Patriots need to involve Harry more, even if he makes mistakes here and there? We have? We’ll, let’s keep saying it.
24. The Patriots’ first possession was exactly what you’d want it to be, an efficient 8-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in which clever play-calling – was that a jet sweep I saw? — worked and several players made important plays. Sometimes it looks so easy. Sometimes.
25. Harry (get him the ball!) had a 10-yard run on a sweep. Michel, ineffective since the Dallas game, had 32 yards on three carries. James White scored the touchdown on third and 10 with a 23-yard catch and run, his second 20-plus-yard play of the drive.
26. The Patriots special teams continues to make big plays, with Matthew Slater forcing Alex Erickson to muff a punt late in the second quarter. Justin Bethel, who has been a terrific in-season pickup, recovered, and the Patriots had the ball and a golden opportunity (which they’d turn into 3 points) at the Bengals 23. Curiously, the play almost started as a disaster for the Patriots – one Bengal had a beeline to block Jake Bailey’s punt, but somehow he got it away.
27. Regarding the Patriots’ taping of the Bengals sideline during last week’s matchup with the Browns, footage of which was revealed by Jay Glazer on the Fox pregame show: It was what the Patriots said it was in their statement, and yet it’s enough that it’s going to cost them a significant fine and perhaps a draft pick.
28. Count me among those that believe there was nothing nefarious at play, but they can’t tape the sideline, and they did. A mistake by a clueless camera man is going to cost them.
29. Credit where it is due: Nick Folk has done a respectable job as the Patriots kicker. He hit both of his field goal attempts and all four of his extra points Sunday, and is now 10 for 13 on field goals since taking over for Mike Nugent in Week 9. Admit it, though. You miss Stephen Gostkowski more than you thought you would.
30. Quiet day for Julian Edelman, who had two catches for 9 yards on five targets. If you want to tell me he shouldn’t have been out there with all of the injuries he’s dealing with, I’m not going to argue with you. He doesn’t look right because he is not.
31. Nice day in a secondary role for ex-Bengal Rex Burkhead, who had six carries for 53 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown run for the final touchdown.
32. Sanu had two catches for 13 yards on eight targets. Oof. There’s still hope he can be a major contributor – he did have 10 catches against the Ravens – but giving up a second-round pick for him is looking pretty steep for what he’s provided.
33. Loved Gilmore’s celebration after his pick-6, tucking the football behind his back and looking around the stadium casually, like he was taking in the moment.
34. It’s still disconcerting that Bengals receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. is not the son of the great Patriots receiver Stanley Morgan. We’re definitely sure about this, right?