The Bengals raced out to an early lead on Christmas Eve afternoon and withstood a late Patriots rally, taking a 22-18 win in Week 16 as New England dips to a 7-8 record on the season. The Pats were hurt by a slow start that enabled a three-score Bengals lead at halftime, as it appeared New England suffered an extended hangover after their last-second stunning loss to the Raiders.
But with some help from the defense and some big plays by Kendrick Bourne, Marcus Jones and Matthew Judon the Patriots were able to climb back into the game to make it interesting down to the final drive. New England looked like they were poised to take an upset win, knocking on the door of a go-ahead score, but a Rhamondre Stevenson fumble suddenly and unceremoniously ended the thrilling comeback attempt.
Mac Jones finished 21-of-33 for 240 yards, while his counterpart on the Bengals Joe Burrow had 375 yards and three touchdowns, though Burrow also added two interceptions that helped keep New England's hopes alive. After a white-hot start, the Bengals production faded and their mistakes picked up, opening the door for New England's near comeback.
The Bengals reasserted themselves as a top team in the AFC and Super Bowl contender while the Patriots continue another late-season slide with just two games to go.
Here are the key takeaways from another late loss.
Bengals offense comes out firing
The Patriots defense had no answers against the first two Bengals drives of the game, as Joe Burrow picked them apart scoring two touchdowns to give Cincinnati an early lead. Thanks to a missed extra point and a Patriots stop on a two-point conversion attempt, the score was 12-0 and not 14-0 at the end of the first quarter.
Burrow had 11 straight completions to start the game, while the Patriots ran just six offensive plays in the first quarter.
It was a bad sign right out of the gate when Burrow hit Tee Higgins over Marcus Jones for a 38-yarder on the Bengals' second offensive play of the game. The second touchdown was a similar dart as Cincinnati hurried to the line and quickly fired a pass up the seam to receiver Trenton Irwin for an easy score. A later third-and-17 pass for 18 yards up the sideline to Jamarr Chase was another pinpoint throw by the quarterback as the Patriots battered cornerback group struggled to match up.
Meanwhile, the Patriots offense started cold with two-straight three-and-outs on their initial possessions of the game, showing no signs of life. It got even worse with Michael Palardy dropping the snap on his second punt, which set the Bengals up near midfield for their third possession.
Early on New England looked still shell-shocked from their loss in Vegas, offering little resistance on defense and unable to get anything going on offense.
After falling into a 15-0 hole the Patriots defense began to make some much-needed plays starting with a Ja'Whaun Bentley pass defense in the end zone that gave New England their first red zone stop of the game. With that, they continued to make plays on the Bengals next drive, first with sacks from Matthew Judon and Josh Uche and then getting a takeaway with Devin McCourty's red-zone interception that prevented Cinci from going up by three scores.
Penalties on the Patriots defense still kept the Bengals drive alive prior to the interception, adding nine yards for Cinci while still stringing together nine plays on the drive.
With the game hanging by a thread in the first half, the defense made some plays on one drive to get a stop but failed to keep it up on the last drive before halftime, allowing a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown scoring drive that made it 22-0 at halftime.
In the second half, the Patriots defense would find their stride again, forcing two punts and grabbing a pick-six on the first three possessions of the second half. But with the sputtering Patriots offense, they were unable to take advantage of the defense finally getting some stops until well into the second half.
Patriots offense struggles in first half
The Patriots offense had 70 total yards of offense in the first half, went 0-3 on third down and held the ball for just 8:20 in four total drives that all ended in punts. 29 of those yards, nearly half, all came from one carry from Kendrick Bourne as the Patriots offense just about bottomed out in the first half against the Bengals, unable to mount any kind of counterattack against one of the NFL's best offenses.
Match those numbers against the Bengals' offensive output: 22 points, 7-9 on third down, 303 yards of offense and 21:26 of possession and it's easy to see how lopsided the game was in the first half.
Marcus Jones gets another TD
Rookie Marcus Jones made things interesting with the Bengals threatening to add to their 22-0 third-quarter lead when Burrow threw up an ill-advised throw while under pressure from Kyle Dugger. The ball went right to Jones, who turned it into a 69-yard pick-six that made that game 22-6 late in the third quarter. Nick Folk missed the extra point, the third missed extra point at the closed end of the stadium during the game, as kicking was difficult due to cold and wind.
With the offense struggling to do anything, the defense once again came through with a score to provide a sudden unexpected spark.
Jones has been one of the bright spots this season with his walk-off punt return against the Jets and now this pick-six that gives him one to match fellow rookie Jack Jones who had one earlier this season against the Packers.
Bourne comes through
Following Jones' pick-six, the Patriots showed more signs of life, forcing an ensuing punt then putting together their best offensive drive of the game, an 11-play, 77-yard touchdown trot with Kendrick Bourne playing a key role. First, Bourne picked up the team's first third-down conversion of the game, then followed that with another, a scintillating 32-yard conversion catch with defensive backs all around him. It was reminiscent of Bourne's spectacular touchdown catch last year against the Browns.
Shortly after, Bourne would make a toe-tap catch on the back line to give New England their second touchdown of the second half. Suddenly the game got interesting at 22-12, though the Pats missed their two-point attempt that would've made it a one-score game.
The Bengals would miss a field goal on their next drive and the Patriots took over with Bourne once again making a key play on the drive. This time it was a 28-yard toe-tap catch along the sideline that was initially ruled incomplete but overturned to a catch upon review.
Deflected touchdown! Forced Fumble! We've got a game...almost
After taking an intentional grounding penalty that was compounded by a false start by Trent Brown, the Patriots faced a third-and29 from near midfield and Mac Jones decided to just let it fly. The ball initially bounced right off of practice squad tight end Scotty Washington's hands, but deflected perfectly into Jakobi Meyers arms for a shocking 48-yard score that, with another missed extra point, made it 22-18 with just under six minutes to play in the game.
It wasn't a conventional comeback in any sense but the Patriots continued to pick up steam in the second half, forcing the Bengals to post their first score since halftime to close the game out.
Then it was Matthew Judon's turn to make a big play, forcing a Jamarr Chase fumble that Marcus Jones recovered, setting the Patriots up at the 43-yard line with 3:12 left.
They'd get all the way to Cincinnati's three-yard line and then tragedy would strike to decide the final result with Rhamondre Stevenson coughing up the ball to give the Patriots their second game in a row ended by a critical unforced error.
Patriots are 7-8
Even with the late comeback surge it was arguably the worst loss of the Patriots 2022 season as New England is once again saddled with a losing record for 2022. The offense could not convert a third down until late into the game, while the defense made some big plays and stops after a slow start that ultimately weren't enough to make any kind of a difference.
Stevenson's late fumble was just the unfortunate cherry on top as self-inflicted mistakes continue to have a major impact on wins and losses this year. The terrible start ultimately overshadowed everything the offense did well down the stretch.
With the loss it appears New England's season will end without a playoff berth for the second time in three seasons, meaning a fourth-straight year without a playoff victory since they won Super Bowl 53. And, with two games against two more really good AFC teams left, their slide down the standings will only continue unless they find a way to squeeze out another win this season.
It's hard to believe the Patriots can suddenly find any magic after five months without any sustainable progress. Miami and Buffalo will offer similar challenges as New England looks to salvage something positive from a season that has turned out to be one of the most disappointing of recent history.