The December visit to Paul Brown Stadium ended in victory for the New England Patriots.
And it ended in a berth for January.
New England extended its NFL record to 11 consecutive playoff seasons Sunday afternoon against the Cincinnati Bengals, with five turnovers and a stretch of 20 unanswered points arriving in the process of the calendar’s last road trip.
Here’s a touchdown of observations from the 34-13 result.
Tom Brady gets No. 537 and No. 538
On third-and-10 during New England’s opening drive, Brady found James White on a screen pass. And from the quarterback to the running back, 23 yards and a visit to the end zone were the byproduct. As was a tie.
The touchdown pass marked Brady’s 537th in his regular-season career, again matching him with Drew Brees for second on the NFL’s all-time list behind only Peyton Manning’s 539. Brady would get another in the third quarter. He now stands with 20-plus touchdown passes in 17 of his Patriots campaigns, surpassing Manning for the most in league history.
Brady went 10-of-21 through the air in the first half. Pressure persisted. His connection with wideout Julian Edelman, who’d been listed as questionable with knee and shoulder injuries on the final injury report, gave way to a pair of completions for nine yards by game’s end.
Dealing with ‘a problem’ in the Cincinnati backfield
Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon entered Sunday having led all running backs in carries over the previous five weeks. He entered having rushed for 469 yards and three touchdowns over that span on 105 handoffs
“This is a guy that, when he gets the ball in his hands, is definitely a problem,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of Mixon, the AFC’s 2018 rushing leader, on Tuesday.
Mixon did get the ball in his hands against New England. He stopped and started, shedding the tackles of linebacker Jamie Collins and safety Duron Harmon for a 29-yard run on Cincinnati’s first possession. It was a possession the offense began with eight rushes in a row. Mixon accounted for five of them, along with 43 yards, before Bengals QB Andy Dalton used his arm to find tight end Cethan Carter in a mismatch with New England nickelback Jonathan Jones. It’d be Carter’s first NFL catch and first NFL TD. But Mixon would continue to be the go-to after the Patriots flexed to run-based personnel, finishing with 136 rushing yards on 25 carries. A fourth-down bulldozing by Patriots nose tackle Danny Shelton prevented more. As did back-to-back stops by former undrafted free agent Adam Butler.
Patriots’ Slater-Bethel tandem tracks down a turnover
Bengals punt returner Alex Erickson fielded the football with 1:31 to go before intermission.
Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel arrived on the scene soon after.
Slater, who leads all AFC special-teamers in Pro Bowl fan voting, stripped the ball out of Erickson’s grasp in one fell swoop. Bethel, a three-time Pro Bowler of his own, slid in to recover the fumble and put New England on the doorstep of the red zone. A 46-yard field goal by kicker Nick Folk gave the visitors a 13-10 halftime lead.
N’Keal Harry saw two offensive snaps against the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday. New England’s rookie first-round pick would see that multiply early against the Bengals this Sunday.
The involvement began with a jet sweep that picked up 10 yards. A fake jet sweep on a handoff to running back Sony Michel followed. Another Harry carry also did before halftime for an additional dozen yards.
The manufactured touches sent the 6-foot-4, 225-pound wide receiver out of Arizona State into space. But Harry’s size allowed space to be created, too. That was realized as a scramble drill turned into touchdown No. 538 for his quarterback early in the second half. Harry stretched out in the back of the end zone versus Cincinnati cornerback B.W. Webb for it. This time, the points counted.
Pick-six gives Gilmore six picks
No longer is Patriots safety Devin McCourty tied for the league lead in interceptions. One of his teammates in the secondary took sole possession on Sunday.
Stephon Gilmore turned back to the football to catch a pass in his right pocket early in the third quarter. The third-and-6 pass intended for Bengals wideout Tyler Boyd gave New England’s cornerback five interceptions on the season – a high point that dates back to his 2016 season with the Buffalo Bills. But that high point did not remain for long. Gilmore intercepted Dalton, Boyd and the Bengals for a 64-yard touchdown return later in the same quarter. The reigning first-team All-Pro now has six interceptions and two trips for six on the year.
Fellow Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson tacked on New England’s third interception of the game shortly thereafter. Jackson got a fourth by the close of the fourth quarter.
Ex-Bengal finds the end zone
The Patriots uncovered ground against a Bengals defense that had previously conceded 4.9 yards per rushing attempt. Rex Burkhead checked in against the organization that drafted him to contribute to that average.
Burkhead, selected No. 190 overall by Cincinnati back in 2013, handled six carries for 53 yards in his return. The Nebraska Cornhusker escaped off the left tackle for a 33-yard touchdown to make it a 34-13 score late in the fourth.
Burkhead spent his initial four NFL years with the Bengals, totaling four touchdowns from scrimmage.