CINCINNATI – For the second straight game, the Patriots have lost the coin toss, gotten the ball first, and driven for a touchdown to go up 7-0. A week earlier against the Kansas City Chiefs, they couldn't hold onto that lead and eventually lost.
In Cincinnati, their initial lead didn't last very long, either, though this time, they'd get it back and keep it.
This week's opening drive went 75 yards in eight plays, the last one being a perfectly-executed screen pass from QB Tom Brady to RB James White, who followed his blockers and found plenty of space to make it to the end zone.
Then, Bengals QB Andy Dalton relied heavily on RBs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard on Cincy's first possession. The tandem accounted for 67 of the Bengals' total 75 yards on their first drive, which ended with Dalton firing an 8-yard TD pass. TE Cethan Carter made a quick move to elude CB Jonathan Jones and waltz into the end zone to complete the scoring play.
New England went three-and-out on the ensuing possession, with rookie Jake Bailey having to punt to Cincinnati. Dalton and the Bengals moved the ball well, thanks in part to some poor tackling by Patriots defenders on several plays. Kicker Randy Bullock knocked through a 34-yard field goal, and just like last week, New England fell behind 10-7 with barely a quarter of play having elapsed.
Facing a 4th-and-4 from Cincinnati's 35-yard line, the Patriots elected to go for it, and had a player open. However, Brady's pass sailed clear through the hands of WR Mohamed Sanu.
New England turned the ball over on downs in the early second quarter, still trailing by three. The Bengals returned the favor, though, on their ensuing drive. On 4th-and-1 from New England 31, Mixon was stuffed for no gain by DL Danny Shelton and LB Ja'Whaun Bentley.
Brady and the offense struggled to find a passing rhythm, yet still managed to get in position for a 40-yard Nick Folk field goal, which he converted to knot the game at 10 late in the second quarter.
The Patriots then got a huge break just after the two-minute warning. Bailey nearly had a punt blocked, but was able to get the kick away. At the other end of the field, co-captain Matthew Slater made a great play as the ball arrived in returner Alex Erickson's hands. Justin Bethel recovered for the Patriots deep in Bengal terrain.
Brady sailed a pass over the head of Sanu, who'd broken free in the end zone. The QB was sacked on the next play, so, New England settled for another Folk field goal, this from 46, to reclaim the lead by intermission.
Cincinnati had the ball to start the third quarter, but not for long. On the third play, Dalton threw an interception to CB Stephon Gilmore, who cradled the ball to his body with just his right hand, as his left arm was engaged with WR Tyler Boyd. Gilmore came down with the ball at the Cincy 43.
Working with a short field, Brady eventually connected with rookie WR N'Keal Harry in the back of the end zone. Folk's extra point gave the Patriots a 10-point advantage.
"Yeah, it was kind of a broken play," Harry explained to reporters later, "I just tried to do what I could to get open. It felt to get out there and contribute and be a factor in the win."
Gilmore got the assist on that TD, but then put six points of his own on the board when he picked off Dalton again on the next Bengals drive. Once again, the pass was intended for Boyd, and Gilmore deftly read the throw, jumped in front of Boyd, and raced 64 yards to the end zone. Folk made it 27-10 with his successful PAT midway through the third.
"The first [interception], I knew the route, so I undercut it and made a good play," Gilmore recalled afterward. "And the second one, kind of knew the route, too, and was able to jump it. We had a blitz coverage, so, I knew the pressure was going to get there, and I was able to make a play.
"I'm having fun, trying to get better each and every week, trying to make plays."
Dalton would make it a perfect three-for-three in the third quarter when he tossed a long-ball interception to CB J.C. Jackson, who made a tremendous play to keep his body in bounds.
"We make plays in practice, and it carries over into games," added Gilmore. "Everybody's making plays, not just one person. We're just having fun."
With 6-and-a-half minutes left in the game, Bullock added a 48-yard field goal to trim the lead a bit, but the outcome was decided by then. RB Rex Burkhead secured it with a 33-yard TD run about a minute later. For good measure, though, Jackson intercepted Dalton one more time with just under four minutes left in the game.
"Offensive line did a tremendous job all day, really setting the tone from the beginning," Burkhead gushed. "Even E-Rob [linebacker-turned-occasional-fullback Elandon Roberts]. I just tried to follow those guys up front and get in the end zone."
"It's always good when you're able to run the ball a little bit and stop the run on defense," observed RB Sony Michel, who carried 19 times for 89 yards against Cincinnati. "I think guys came out today and played well. Guys just executed their assignments today. We had the mindset of trying to play physical, and I think we did that a little bit today... It can help us win games."
It's become the Patriots' 2019 modus operandi to win games by relying on big plays by the defense and special teams units. The formula proved effective once more.
"I think it was a good, complementary game," remarked center Ted Karras, returning to action after missing last week with a knee injury. "Defense and special teams continue to be awesome. We've got to hold up our end of the bargain, put points on the board and drives together."
"It was big for us that the defense got some turnovers," Burkhead continued. "Big-time Steph [Gilmore] playing lights-out, doing his thing. Definitely helped us out."
This latest victory over the Bengals Sunday in the Queen City guaranteed New England a berth in the upcoming playoffs. Securing the AFC East will have to wait at least another week, however. That could happen when the Patriots host their challengers for the crown, the Buffalo Bills, this coming Saturday at Gillette.
"Hopefully, we can build off this," Karras added. "We've got two games left in the regular season and then it's crunch time."