By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — For a stretch on Sunday afternoon, things didn’t look great for the Patriots. Not great at all.
But then … the Bengals Bengaled, and the Patriots’ defensive players remembered that they’re supposed to be THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE™, and the final score of 34-13 looked pretty much what most folks expected it to look like.
As with any game, there were highs, and there were lows. Here are those highs, and here are those lows … presented in Four Ups, Four Downs.
The best cornerback in football made sure that this game didn’t go the wrong way for the visitors. Coming out of halftime, Gilmore played insanely tight defense on Tyler Boyd, and the corner was able to step around the receiver to pick off an Andy Dalton pass. The Patriots scored a touchdown seven plays later.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 15, 2019
On Cincinnati’s next drive, Dalton showed that he clearly hadn’t learned his lesson, once again throwing the ball in Gilmore’s direction. This time, Gilmore picked off the pass and saw nothing but green in front of him. Gilmore returned the pick 64 yards for the touchdown, his second of the year.
And because he’s Stephon Gilmore, he came within an inch or two of securing his third pick of the game later in the fourth quarter.
Those two picks were instrumental in turning a 13-10 lead into a 27-10 lead. Gilmore now has six picks, most in the NFL.
With Julian Edelman banged up, an opportunity finally arose for the rookie first-rounder. Harry took advantage.
Harry’s first career rush resulted in a 10-yard pickup on the opening drive of the game, he ran to the sticks and picked up eight yards on a third-and-8 in the second quarter, he rushed for another 12 yards on an end-around to move the chains again, and he ran himself open on the back of the end zone before making a tremendous catch on a pass zipped in by Brady.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 15, 2019
Also, it didn’t count, but Harry made a spectacular diving catch that would have gone for 36 yards, if not for an Edelman false start. And in the fourth quarter, on a fumble return by Cincinnati that didn’t count due to penalties, Harry chased down B.W. Webb from behind, a heads up play to prevent a possible disaster.
Harry finished with just 15 receiving yards, but he had the touchdown, and he rushed for 22 yards on two carries in what was an important step forward across the board for the rookie.
The Bengals decided to go for it on a fourth-and-1 midway through the second quarter, and the New England defense got big and made the stop. Danny Shelton dominated guard Michael Jordan, and he combined with Ja’Whaun Bentley and Elandon Roberts to stop Joe Mixon to force a turnover on downs.
The Bengals led 10-7 at that point in time. The Patriots would then score 20 straight points to take a 27-10 lead and seize control of the game. That play just might have been the decisive moment in stopping the early bleeding.
While the lack of a big leg forced the Patriots to go for it (and fail) on a fourth-and-4 from the Bengals’ 35-yard line, Nick Folk was perfect when called upon in this one, and it made a massive difference in this game.
Folk was a perfect 4-for-4 on PATs, and he also drilled a 40-yard field goal and a 46-yard field goal late in the second quarter to turn a 10-7 deficit into a 13-10 lead.
BONUS: J.C. Jackson
Like Gilmore, Jackson was able to pick off Dalton twice, helping to keep the Bengals from even sniffing a sense of life in the second half.
BONUS: James White
The shifty running back proved to be elusive on the Patriots’ opening drive, as he caught two passes for 45 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown on a screen pass.
White finished with 49 receiving yards, 13 rushing yards and the all-important touchdown on the opening drive.
BONUS: Slater and Bethel
Sometimes, people crack jokes about Bill Belichick’s affinity for special teams. But the duo of Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel is no joke.
The two combined for one of the biggest plays of the game, when Slater forced a muffed punt and Bethel flew in to recover the loose ball. That play allowed the Patriots to tack on a field goal before halftime.
Bethel also made Darius Phillips pay for a poor decision to return a kickoff out of the end zone, making a tackle at the Cincinnati 12-yard line.
Without a reliable kicker for long kicks, the Patriots had to attempt a fourth-and-4 from the Cincinnati 35-yard line in the second quarter. Brady threw a pass to Sanu and hit the receiver in the hands, but Sanu couldn’t make the catch.
In the fourth quarter, with the Patriots holding a comfortable 14-point lead, Sanu fumbled while running after catching a ball over the middle. He was saved on that miscue by a penalty on Cincinnati, but it nevertheless won’t lead to much confidence being built in Sanu as the Patriots’ offense tries to figure things out.
Sanu had just two catches for 13 yards on eight targets.
The offensive line and the running game got its act together in this one, rushing for 177 yards and a touchdown on 30 real rushing attempts (kneeldowns excluded, that is). But the protection was a bit of an issue throughout the day, as the Bengals registered six hits on Brady and two sacks.
Those two sacks came on consecutive third downs, sandwiched around the muffed punt, making the issue stand out a bit.
The protection was better in the second half, but third-down sacks are always a killer.
The cornerback suffered a groin injury defending a pass against Alex Erickson with a little more than five minutes left in the game. With Jason McCourty already missing with a groin injury, the Patriots’ defensive backfield is starting to take some hits.
A nitpick? For sure. But we need to fill out four of these things, people.
The rookie sent a kickoff out of bounds after the Patriots took a 13-10 lead late in the second half. Because Dalton just took a knee to end the half, it didn’t matter. But when you work for Bill Belichick, surely everything matters.
Bonus Down: The Rest Of The Receivers
Phillip Dorsett and Jakobi Meyers weren’t targeted at all on Sunday. Julian Edelman caught two passes (on five targets) for just nine yards. Edelman was clearly limited by injury. The lack of involvement from the other two receivers appears to have been the game plan.
Most of the questions that existed prior to this game will carry through for another week.