CINCINNATI — Despite the offense sputtering and the weather sprinkling, the Patriots had the Bengals right where they wanted them Sunday: pinned at their 2-yard-line, facing third and 15. Final minutes of the third quarter, Bengals leading, 6-3.
A defensive stop would have forced a punt from the Cincinnati end zone, and likely set up the Patriots in great field position, looking for a go-ahead score, or at least a tying field goal.
What followed was the only touchdown drive of the game, a 93-yard Bengals march that spanned two quarters, required 14 plays, featured a 322-pound fullback, and ran nearly eight minutes off the clock.
In a 13-6 Cincinnati victory, it proved to be the difference.
The Bengals converted three times on third down on the deciding drive, and scored the touchdown on a 1-yard run by former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis on fourth down.
It was just about the lone Patriots’ blemish on defense. But it was a costly one.
“As a defense we have to be able to stop them on that drive, whether it’s that last play on fourth down, or one of the third downs we gave up,” said cornerback Aqib Talib. “We’ve just got to be able to stop them on that drive.”
There were five key plays on the drive, none bigger than the third-down snap from the 2. The Bengals actually quick-snapped, with quarterback Andy Dalton throwing a long ball for Marvin Jones that the second-year receiver pulled down over Devin McCourty for a 28-yard gain.
“It was taking them a little while to line up, so we got [the ball] out and [Marvin] made a big catch and kept the drive going,” Dalton said. “It gave us some momentum and we took advantage of it, kept making some plays, drove down, and scored.”
Running back Giovani Bernard took a handoff and raced 28 yards immediately after Jones’s catch, giving the Bengals 56 yards in two plays. From the shadows of their goal posts (had there been shadows, since most of the day was overcast and rainy), the Bengals were now threatening to make it a two-score game.
Two other third-down conversions put the Bengals inside the red zone. Green-Ellis gained 4 yards on third and 2 from the Patriots’ 34, and Dalton hit A.J. Green for a 17-yard completion on third and 3 from the 23. Either stop could have forced a field goal, which would have made it a 6-point deficit.
Now at the 6, the Bengals pushed it to the 1 on a 5-yard carry by Green-Ellis. After no gain on a second-down run, the Bengals sent in defensive tackle Domata Peko to serve as fullback on third and goal from the 1. But Peko was flagged for a false start, moving it back 5 yards.
Dalton brought it back to the 1 on a designed quarterback draw, and the Bengals chose to go for it on fourth down, setting up the play of the game to that point. Pound it in and take a 10-point lead, or get stuffed and the Patriots take over with the momentum.
Peko came in again. The Patriots knew exactly what was coming.
“They did what they do,” Talib said. “Put him in the backfield and give it to BenJarvus and run straight. We knew that’s what they were going to do.”
That’s what they did, Green-Ellis following Peko and bull-rushing his way into the end zone for a score that put the Bengals up, 13-3. A drive that ran 7:48 off the clock ended with a 36-inch run.
“The pile moved in,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. “We’ve got to stop them there on fourth down, that’s it. Bow up, let’s go, let’s stop them. The mentality has to be that we have to do whatever it takes to stop them.”
Most days, the Patriots giving up 13 points is more than enough for a victory. This day, it wasn’t.
“We let them off the hook,” said defensive tackle Joe Vellano. “It was on us, it was all on us, and we’ve got to do better.”
Said Ninkovich: “Thirteen points is a low number, but it’s up to us to keep it even lower. It’s not the end of the world. I don’t think I played my best game, so I’ve got to keep working, do my best to have a better week next week.
“I will have a better week next week.”