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Patriots Struggle Early, But Still Clinch Playoffs

Bob George
Bob George on Twitter
December 15, 2019 at 6:32 pm ET

Patriots Struggle Early, But Still Clinch Playoffs(PHOTO: David Kohl - USA TODAY Sports)
Posted: Dec 15, 2019 06:32
🕑 Read Time: 4 minutes

CINCINNATI – Videotaping the Cincinnati Bengals last week did nothing to prevent Joe Mixon from gashing the Patriots for 136 yards rushing.

The 1-12 Bengals, who are taking dead aim on Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow as their next quarterback, actually led the 10-3 Patriots 10-7 in the first quarter. The Patriot defense seemed to have no interest in tackling Mixon or Giovanni Bernard, someone named Cethan Carter caught his first pass of the season, which was a touchdown against a seemingly disinterested Jonathan Jones, and Tom Brady once again looks nothing like his GOAT self. Assuming the NFL throws the book at the Patriots for their transgressions of last weekend at the expense of the Bengals, none of those shenanigans had any effect on the game as the second quarter began.

In the end, the Bengals eventually played like the Bengals, and it again didn’t seem to be a result of illegal videotaping. Andy Dalton threw four interceptions, Alex Erickson muffed a punt, and the Patriots cashed in all of what was gifted to them to pull off an underwhelming 34-13 win Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Despite looking off kilter for the third week in a row, the Patriots managed to finally clinch a playoff berth, with a chance to clinch the division next Saturday at home against Buffalo.

The Patriots are now 11-3 and have the inside track to the two seed in the AFC playoffs. The Bengals are now 1-13 and have the inside track to being able to draft Burrow, the incredible LSU quarterback who many experts are calling “the next Tom Brady”.

Brady finished 15 of 29 passing for 128 yards, two touchdowns and an 86.6 rating. But Brady was again mostly off target, being hurried on most every play, missing receivers, and also the victim of a few drops. Brady will take the win, but his lack of efficiency, not to mention the lack of effectiveness from Julian Edelman, remains a glaring issue for the Patriots as the playoffs grow closer.

Edelman, who almost wasn’t activated for this game, had only two catches for nine yards. James White and Matt La Cosse tied for the team high in receptions with three each. White led the team with 49 yards and a touchdown. N’Keal Harry had the other touchdown catch, on the opening drive of the second half after finally breaking free with Brady having almost six seconds to throw the ball.

The Patriots can take heart that the running game looked good today. The team rushed for 175 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Sony Michel had 89 of those yards and a 4.7 average, while former Bengal Rex Burkhead had 53 yards and an 8.8 yard average, helped by a 33-yard touchdown burst in the fourth quarter.

The defense finally locked down Mixon, but also put the game away with four picks of Dalton. Stephon Gilmore had two of them, giving him six for the season, tops in the NFL. Both picks came on the first two drives of the second half for the Bengals, and on both plays Tyler Boyd was the intended receiver. The second pick went for a touchdown, as Gilmore managed to jump the route on the far sideline and ran it back 64 yards for the pick-six. Gilmore’s six picks this season are his career best.

J.C. Jackson had the other two interceptions. Late in the third quarter, Dalton tried to hit Erickson on a deep right sideline pattern and Jackson snitched the ball from him. Late in the fourth quarter, Jackson stole a deep left sideline pass from John Ross III and returned it 19 yards. As the game wore on, the Patriot pass rush began to hassle Dalton and make him hurry throws and throw off his back foot. The Patriots registered no sacks of Dalton, but they will take four picks over four sacks any day.

Erickson also suffered a muffed punt, late in the second quarter. Matthew Slater, whose special teams play this season is approaching biblical status, stripped the ball from Erickson and Justin Bethel recovered the loose ball. This led to a Nick Folk 46-yard field goal and a 13-10 halftime lead for the Patriots.

Folk was perfect on field goals, hitting on both attempts and both were 40 yards or better. This is the second time in Patriot history that they have had as many as four kickers in a season, along with 1978 and John Smith, Nick Lowery, Jerrel Wilson, and David Posey. Wilson was a punter who kicked one extra point that year, and Posey gained momentary fame by kicking the game-winning field goal in the snow against Buffalo to clinch the AFC East that season, which was the first such title in Patriot history.

Dalton finished 17 of 31 passing for 151 yards and a passer rating of 39.2. Boyd and Tyler Eifert each had three catches to lead the team, with Eifert tops with 44 receiving yards. As a team, the Bengals averaged 5.1 yards per carry on the ground.

The Patriots now have 11 straight playoff berths, which is the best in NFL history. They also have 10 straight 11-win seasons, also the best in league history. The Patriots have two more home games left to figure out how to turn themselves into a playoff force instead of possibly being a playoff farce.

Next up is Buffalo, and a Saturday contest at Gillette. Even if the Patriots lose this game, a win in the season finale at home against woebegone Miami would clinch the division for the Patriots. Two wins in the last two games clinch the two seed and a bye week, something all the past Super Bowl champion Patriot teams have enjoyed. The Patriots did have a December two-game losing streak last year (at Miami, at Pittsburgh), but went on to run the table into February.

The Patriots await the league’s decision on penalties for the videotaping issue at Cleveland last week, but the players and coaching staff will focus only on Buffalo, who right now is the six seed for the playoffs and will play the Patriots incredibly tough. The Patriots won earlier this season 19-10 in western New York.

Seriously, the Patriots have deeper issues than meets the eye if they feel they need to videotape a 1-13 team a week before playing them. How well those issues get dealt with and fixed will define the rest of the season for the defending champs.

Patriots Defense Keys Big 34-13 Win Over Cincinnati

About Bob George

Covering Boston Sports since 1997. Native of Worcester, Mass. Attended UMass and Univ of Michigan. Lives in California. Just recently retired after 40 years of public school teaching. Podcasts on YouTube at @thepic4139

Posted Under: Patriots News

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