CINCINNATI — Joe Mixon was showing off some pretty hot stuff in the early going Sunday, the Bengals running back rushing for 81 yards on his first 13 carries.
Then Mr. Big Stuff stepped in.
New England Danny Shelton delivered a big blow on Mixon on a fourth-down run early in the second quarter — stopping him for no gain at the Patriots 30 — and a Cincinnati offense that had been humming never recovered.
Trailing, 10-7, the Patriots seized the momentum by scoring the next 20 points en route to a 34-13 victory at Paul Brown Stadium.
The victory means Bill Belichick has now led the Patriots to 11 straight postseason berths, an NFL record for coaches.
New England (11-3) came out of the chute sluggish, missing multiple tackles and allowing big gains on the ground before Shelton shifted the momentum. Shelton’s presnap read was perfect as he tossed guard Michael Jordan aside, rocked Mixon, and righted the defensive ship.
“Obviously they were going to try to hit a run, so I was just keying the guard, he was leaning toward me a little, so I knew he was going to try to either cut block or down block on me,’’ said Shelton. “So, I knew if I just played with my hands [and] threw him back I’d be in on the play.’’
It was an aggressive decision by first-year Bengals coach Zac Taylor, who was trying to instill confidence in his 1-13 squad — but it backfired.
Ja’Whaun Bentley added the finishing touch on the stop.
“They went for it, ran a dive play, so we were looking to get up in there and cause as much havoc as possible and I was able to get through and make a play,’’ said Bentley, who agreed it changed the tone of the game. “We definitely try to make splash plays to try and get the energy up and shift the momentum a little bit.’’
Though Mixon finished with 136 yards, it was the fourth-down stuff that will define his day.
“It was a good play that they made,’’ said Mixon. “I have to go get that first down and I [didn’t] do it. Put that up on me.’’
While the New England front seven held Mixon largely in check in the second half (nine carries, 53 yards), the secondary was terrifying Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, who threw four interceptions – and nearly five.
Stephon Gilmore stole the show and the passes, first grabbing a one-handed interception and then following that with a pick-6.
Gilmore’s second theft — he jumped the route and could have run untouched to northern Kentucky if he wanted — gave New England a 27-10 lead and silenced the Cincinnati sideline.
J.C. Jackson added a pair of interceptions.
“Three of them were against man-to-man coverage, one-on-ones,’’ said Taylor. “We got bullied . . . we did.’’
The Patriots, meanwhile, got a huge boost from their own running game, churning out 175 yards that included 89 yards from Sony Michel, who ran with good spring and strength as he shook tackles.
Rex Burkhead stomped out 53 yards on his old stomping grounds, including a nifty 33-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter in which he froze a pair of Bengals before darting into the end zone.
The ground game was big as the passing game continued to struggle, especially with top receiver Julian Edelman clearly not at full strength as he nurses a sore knee.
Tom Brady (15 of 29, 128 yards, 2 touchdowns) targeted Edelman just five times and connected with him twice (for 9 yards).
Special teams also came up large. Nick Folk was perfect on the day with two field goals (40 and 46 yards) and four PATs. Jake Bailey had a 65-yard punt and Matthew Slater forced a muff on a punt that Juston Bethel recovered, leading to a tie-breaking field goal (13-10) just before the half.
In all, the Patriots scored four times for 20 points off Cincinnati turnovers.
“That’s the key,’’ said Belichick. “You have to capitalize on [turnovers and field position]. You don’t always control the ball on offense or defense. Many times field position is a result of special teams and you get it where you get it. You can’t always control where they get the ball. However, what you can control is getting the ball into the end zone, and that is a good thing.’’
The Patriots marched 75 yards on eight plays on the game’s opening possession, capped by a perfectly executed 23-yard screen pass from Brady to James White. White benefitted from a pair of nifty open-field blocks from left guard Joe Thuney and center Ted Karras, who returned after missing a week with a knee injury.
“I missed it, [good] to be back in the fray,’’ said Karras.
The Bengals answered quickly, scoring on their next two possessions to take a 10-7 lead. They were poised to increase it when Shelton and Bentley put a stop to things. Literally.
“I thought it was just a great attitude play,’’ said Devin McCourty. “Until that play, they were kind of having their way with us running the ball. We didn’t make any kind of plays defensively throughout the early part of the game and I thought that was the first play where our attitude came in.’’