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The Lane Breakdown: Patriots show signs of improvement in Sunday’s win over the Bengals

Related: Patriots vs Bengals recap: New England secures playoff spot with 34-13 win in Cincinnati

New England Patriots v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Against the Cincinnati Bengals, it wasn’t going to be a question of if the New England Patriots would win, but rather one of how they would play and how much they would win by. After a shaky first 30 minutes, they would eventually need all three phases of the game playing well in the second half to win by 21 points.

Let’s start with special teams. Matthew Slater made a fantastic play on Alex Erickson to knock the ball out on a punt return, and Justin Bethel would recover to give the Patriots great field position in what was a 10-10 game at the time. Bailey punted very well, but did shank a kickoff out of bounds. Luckily, that was at the end of the half, and the Bengals inexplicably took a knee at the 40 instead of trying to throw one deep.

Slater and Bethel both made multiple plays, and showed why they are probably the two best special teamers in the game right now. Kicker Nick Folk looked good again, and, although his range is limited, has probably been the best of the Patriots’ kickers this season. I know I’m starting to trust him. We’ll see how he does in a pressure moment, but he’s been performing well since he’s gotten here.

The offense was... okay. It had a great first drive, where it was able to run at will with Sony Michel, and capped it off with a great screen pass that James White took to the house. After Slater’s forced fumble, it would disappointingly go three-and-out, but luckily Folk would knock one through from 46 yards out to give the Patriots a lead they would never surrender.

Tom Brady was fine. He missed some throws, but made some good ones too. The offensive line looked porous again, and Shaq Mason went down with an ankle injury late. If they can’t protect Brady and open some running lanes, however, this team is done.

The biggest bright spot offensively was the play of N’Keal Harry. First, it was the fact that he actually played, which is a step in the right direction. Then, when he was out there, he made some really nice plays. Two solid jet sweeps, a great diving catch on a deep ball that didn’t count, and a touchdown catch where he got open late and made a diving reception in the back of the end zone. From now on, he needs to be the consistent number two behind Edelman, and, if the ball isn’t going to Edelman or James White, it should be going to him.

Now for the defense. As bad as it looked in the first half, the unit was fantastic in the second. I know it’s the Bengals, and Andy Dalton can always be relied on to make terrible plays, but this second half thing has been a trend for them lately. They’ve only allowed 73 second half points all season, which is an average of just over five a game. The only teams to score more than 10 points against them in quarters three and four are the Texans, the Ravens, and the Jets. They held the Chiefs and Cowboys to three points, shut out the Eagles, and gave up six points to the Browns.

Does that mean the Patriots dominate in the second half in every game? No, but they have been consistently making good adjustments at the half, and playing significantly better.

Of course, your job on defense gets easier when you have someone as good as Stephon Gilmore playing on your team. That’s right, the best corner in the NFL gets his own paragraph. He had another two picks on Sunday, upping his total to a league leading six, and returned his second for a touchdown. I don’t understand why quarterbacks still think it’s OK to throw near him, but they do, and he consistently wins almost every matchup. If he wasn’t already in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, he certainly is now. And beyond the Bosa brothers, I don’t know if anyone is close to him. Forget the interceptions, you simply cannot throw it to the receiver that Gilmore is covering.

All in all, it was a good day against a team they should beat. Still, it was good to see the running game get better, even though those numbers might be a bit inflated by the two long runs by Rex Burkhead at the end. I would like to see more consistency from the offensive line and the receivers, but the win in Cincinnati is a step in the right direction.

We’re on to Buffalo.

Pat is a host of The Patriot Nation Podcast

Interact with him on Twitter @plane_pats