CINCINNATI — The feckless Cincinnati Bengals were the ideal elixir for the Patriots. They were a pigskin palate cleanser after back-to-back distasteful defeats against the Houston Texans and the Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots couldn’t lose to this 1-13 team if they tried. For about a half they did try, letting the Bengals stick around before smushing them beneath their cleats like a bug.
With a boost from their rapacious defense and the bumbling Bengals, the Patriots got off the schneid and clinched a playoff spot for an NFL-record 11th consecutive season, scoring a 34-13 victory at Paul Brown Stadium in front of a generously estimated gathering of 57,066. The Patriots’ annual playoff berth birthright is a reminder that the defining games of their season remain ahead of them. That’s the good news. The bad news is they’re going to have to play a lot better than this, starting on Saturday against the Buffalo Bills, to be the last team standing in February. You can beat the bow-wow Bengals this way, but the 11-3 Patriots still need to refine the product for the playoffs or it’s going to be defective.
We didn’t learn anything new about the Patriots in this game. Their formula for victory remains consistent — an imposing defense and an offense that scrapes by on field position and stringing together enough plays. It was a welcome sign that the Patriots offense generated 27 points, even if two of their three touchdowns came on drives that started inside the Cincinnati 45-yard line and one of their field goals was from a gift drive that commenced at the Cincy 23 after a botched punt return and a fortuitous non-call of catch interference. It marked the first time since Week 7 that the offense generated more than 22 points on its own.
But you have to grade on a curve to account for the level of competition — or lack thereof — and the Bengals’ blunders. The Bengals turned over the ball five times (four interceptions by quarterback Andy Dalton). Running the ball effectively, they lined up in the shotgun on fourth and 1 from the Patriots’ 30 holding a 10-7 lead and got stuffed.
Bad teams are magnetically drawn to such mistakes. Despite talents such as running back Joe Mixon, who rushed for more yards than any back against New England this season with 136 on 25 carries, the Bengals are a horrible team. They’re far from the level of competition the Patriots will have to overcome in the postseason.
“Obviously, it’s good to come out with a win, for sure. Obviously, it wasn’t perfect. We still have room for improvement,” said running back James White, who capped the game’s opening drive with a 23-yard touchdown on a screen play. “So, I think everybody knows that, and . . . everybody just wants to step our level of play up. We only have a few more games before it really gets rolling.”
Honestly, the backdrop for this game was a lot more compelling than the actual contest. There was posturing all week after the Bengals caught the Patriots breaking NFL rules by filming the Cincinnati sideline last Sunday during the Bengals loss in Cleveland to the Browns, creating echoes of Spygate. The Patriots immediately copped to an inadvertent violation of NFL rules while their in-house media arm was filming a documentary on one of their scouts for the team’s “Do Your Job” series on unsung contributors. They have suspended an employee associated with the production.
But the franchise and coach Bill Belichick, who would rather walk across hot nails than revisit the aspersions cast by Spygate, vehemently denied that football operations had any part in the breach of NFL rules. The Bengals thought that the Patriots docu-series was a flimsy pretext. Cincinnati turned the Patriots in to the NFL for punishment while retaining a video of what the Patriots filmed. Fox’s Jay Glazer obtained some of the video, and it aired on the Fox pregame show, adding to the intrigue and the discord between the clubs.
In past seasons, Belichick would’ve brought down biblical justice on the Bengals. But the Patriots aren’t built for that in 2019, so they settled for a workman-like victory that featured New England taking advantage of the Bengals’ league-worst run defense to compile their best rushing effort of the season, 175 yards on 32 carries and a score.
“We really didn’t even talk about it at all,” said safety Duron Harmon of the controversy. “Obviously, Bill addressed the team on the situation, but from a team-standpoint and a player-standpoint, that was the least of our worries. I mean Bill told us what he told us, and we believe in Bill and what he says. He has never been one to lie to us or to lie to anyone. He is as consistent a human being that is probably out there with telling the truth.
“We believe him, so we moved on. We knew we had a big test just coming up here and winning, and that’s what we wanted to do.”
Perhaps, coach Zac Taylor and the Bengals brass should be more concerned with what their quarterback sees on the field than what can be seen on their sideline by a camera in the press box.
The Patriots finally put some distance between themselves and pro football’s most inept operation in the third quarter as Gilmore intercepted Dalton on consecutive drives to extend a 13-10 halftime advantage to 27-10. Looking like Dalton’s intended receiver, Gilmore nabbed a pass at the Cincy 43. Tom Brady made sure the pick paid off, hitting rookie N’Keal Harry in the back of the end zone on third and goal.
Gilmore then provided the Patriots fifth defensive touchdown of the season, returning a telegraphed Dalton pass 64 yards with 7:21 left in the third. Gilmore became the first Patriot with multiple pick-sixes since Tedy Bruschi in 2003. That sapped all the suspense out of this affair. Watching those eight minutes of tape of the Bengals sideline would have been more instructive after that.
The Patriots increasing their lead by two touchdowns despite only generating 56 yards of offense in the third is a microcosm of their season.
After losing three of their last five, the Patriots were relieved to revisit the type of competition they faced on their way to an 8-0 start.
If you’re a beer glass-half-full kind of football fan then you look at the fact the Patriots have won 11 games already — the same number they won all last season — and they still haven’t played up to their full potential.
“Oh, without a doubt. We still got so much that we can improve on,” said Harmon. “We’re still trying to get better. We’re still trying to play that 60-minute football game that we haven’t played yet. The idea that we’ve been able to win 11 games and we haven’t played it yet is very, very encouraging.”
If you’re a Patriots pessimist you point out that the team has remained largely unchanged in its approach all season, lost to all three fellow AFC division leaders, and witnessed Brady (15 of 29 for 128 yards and two TD passes) complete fewer than 56 percent of his passes for a fifth straight game. Another worrisome sign was injured wideout Julian Edelman gutting out this game at less than 100 percent.
The NFL is a bottom-line business. But the bottom line for the Patriots is always Super Bowl or bust, so they’re going to have to up their play the rest of the way.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.