Monday, December 16, 2019

Patriots Dispatch Bengals 34-13,Gain Playoff Berth

The Patriots outclassed Cincy, beating the Bengals 34-13 to run their record to 11-3. The win guarantees the Pats a playoff berth, and keeps them in the hunt for the #2 overall AFC seed. Next up is the showdown with Buffalo, who comes to Gillette this Saturday to try to knock the Patriots from their usual perch atop the AFC East.

If you didn't watch this game, it was a lot more tense than the final score indicates. The Bengals led 10-7 early, were running the ball all over the place, and had a third-and-2 at the Pats 31 yard-line. They could have made things really uncomfortable with a score there. But they got stuffed on third- and fourth-downs and the Pats took control of the game from that point.

As is often the case, QB Tom Brady started slowly. He misfired on his first throw of the game (and was pissed at himself about it) and completed less than 50% of his passes in the first half. He sometimes has trouble coming out firing these days. Too many high or low passes. This game, he ended up with pretty boring numbers: 15 of 29 (52%), 128 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an 86.6 rating. But perhaps most important was the 0 next to interceptions.

In fairness, his receivers dropped a bunch of passes, too. Mohamed Sanu dropped a fourth-down pass for the second time in three games. Julian Edelman and James White also had drops, and the offense just couldn't sustain anything after the opening drive.

The O played better in the last 35 minutes. That was partially because they just executed better, but they also benefited from short fields after turnovers. Including a blocked punt late in the first half, the Patriots scored on drives of minus-5 yards, 43 yards, and 40 yards. Not exactly the kind of sustained success you'd hope to see. (Note: the defense threw in a pick-six score for the final total.)

On offense, the Patriots seem to come in with decent first-drive plans, having scored on their opening possession the last three games. But once their opponents see the plan and make adjustments, it often takes until the second half to come up with Plan B. That works against also-rans like the Bengals, but it likely won't in the playoffs.

The running game took center stage yesterday. New England rushed for a season-high 175 yards and got 5.5 yards per carry. Sony Michel led the team with 89 yards, and Rex Burkhead chipped in 53 and an 8.8ypc average (and a nifty 33-yard touchdown). Also, running back James White led all receivers with 3 catches and 49 yards.

If White's numbers look pedestrian for someone who led the team, then you can guess how the receivers looked. The last time Edelman had as few as 2 catches in a Tom Brady start was all the way back in 2014. N'Keal Harry looked okay some of the time, but even on his touchdown, he took over 5 seconds to get open at the end-line. Sanu caught 2 passes and fumbled one of them, and tight end Ben Watson zeroed out the stat sheet. Only tight end Matt LaCosse and Harry looked better than usual in this contest.

One note on the offensive line, Marcus Cannon had an absolutely dreadful day. The Bengals sacked Brady twice and hit him six other times. And it seemed like every time it happened it was Cannon's guy coming around edge to put the hurt on Brady. He's played better this year, and it would be a bad time for him to start losing form -- maybe O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia can work some magic with him.

As per usual, the defense was the best of the three units by far. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore picked off two passes, including the aforementioned return for touchdown. And his INT on the Bengals' first drive of the second half turned the tide firmly in the Patriots favor. If Cincy had scored, they could have been in the lead -- but after the INT, the Pats scored and it was getting away from the Bengals.

Corner JC Jackson also had two picks, and he and Gilmore also knocked away seven other passes, which is an almost unheard of number for one game! Safety Patrick Chung and corner Terrence Brooks were up-and-down, and Jonathan Jones got beaten on another touchdown. But even with those issues, a very impressive day for the secondary.

The linebackers started slow but got better as the game wore on. On Cincinnati's only touchdown drive, Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower both missed tackles in the backfield on one play -- a play that went for a 29 yard run. Collins got better, though Hightower wasn't that noticeable. By game's end, backup Ja'Whaun Bentley was making plays in mop-up duty. Also of note: rookie Chase Winovich seems good for a few QB pressures and hustle plays every game.

Bentley shared the team lead in tackles (7) with defensive lineman Deatrich Wise, who did a great job clogging the middle after the first few drives. Danny Shelton also performed well on the line, getting six tackles of his own.

Special teams ace Matthew Slater caused a fumbled punt, and it was recovered by another ST ace, Justin Bethel. The Patriots didn't go after blocks this week, but special teams still made a real impact. The Bengals used timeouts to get the ball back before the half, but Slater and Bethel denied them -- giving the Pats the ball and a field goal before intermission.

As for the coaching, one thing I've noticed is there are more in-game issues with the Pats than usual. In the second quarter yesterday, John Simon was called for a penalty on an Andy Dalton incompletion. But on the play, it was pretty clearly intentional grounding on Dalton. But Belichick never even looked at, let alone yelled at, an official on that one.

I wonder if BB has taken on so much with the defense that some of the in-game management has suffered. Against the Chiefs they ran out of challenges after one was wasted on an unlikely overturn. And in that game, they didn't even try for points with good field position before the half, seeming to run out the clock rather than attack as they normally would.

It bears watching, but there do seem to have been far more game-management issues in 2019 than in past years.

Where does that leave us? 11-3 and in the playoffs for the 11th straight year. It's a far cry from the Rod Rust years in the old stadium. Next up are the Bills, who won to keep pace yesterday. A win and the Patriots are AFC East Champs yet again.

Believe it or not, the Patriots control the division even if they lose on Saturday (4:30pm). Their 10-1 record against common opponents would be the tiebreaker in effect if they lose to Buffalo (currently 8-3) and they end up with the same record.

However, things would be much simpler if the Patriots won out. That way they'd have a playoff bye and the division crown. They can lose the #2 seed to Kansas City under the above scenario. So better to just beat the Bills, like they usually do :D

Biggest on-going problem: Offensive consistency. First drive, "Yay!" Rest of the first half, "Meh..." Second half, "Woohoo!"

They need to get rid of that second part.

Non-Brady MVP: Stephon Gilmore, who basically shut down the Bengals best receiver (Tyler Boyd, 3 catches for 26 yards), knocked down four passes, intercepted two passes, and returned one of those for six points. As far as I'm concerned, he can take the Miami game off, he's earned it!

Statistical oddity: It's been 46 years since a team finished with three of the top five intercepting players in the league. The Patriots have a real shot at it this year, with Gilmore, Jackson, and safety Devin McCourty among the league leaders. (Trivia question: can you name the team that did it in 1973? Answer below...)

Water-cooler wisdom: "The Bills are better than expected, but Josh Allen isn't ready to take down the best secondary in the league."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 11-3!

PPS. Trivia answer:
The 1973 Pittsburgh Steelers had Mike Wagner, Glen Edwards, and John Rowser in the top 5 in Interceptions that year.

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