Nothing cures ills quite like the Cincinnati Bengals.
Stephon Gilmore had two interceptions, including a pick-six, while the Patriots had five takeaways in all in a 27-13 win at Paul Brown Stadium that officially sealed up a postseason berth for New England for the 11th straight season.
J.C. Jackson had two interceptions off Andy Dalton, who finished with a passer rating of 39.2 – the fourth-worst of his nine-year career. Matthew Slater forced a fumble on a punt return for the Bengals, which was promptly recovered by fellow special teams ace Justin Bethel.
Saying the Patriots (11-3) cruised to a victory, however, would be disingenuous. Despite scoring on a James White 21-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady on the game’s very first possession, New England actually trailed Cincinnati, 10-7, after the first quarter.
The only reason the Patriots held a 13-10 lead at the half was due to the Slater-Bethel special, which covered up a three-and-out set on which New England lost six yards.
Thing was, gifted with great field position at the Cincinnati 23-yard line, the Patriots went backwards once again, though Nick Folk’s 46-yard field goal – his longest of the season – salvaged something from the sequence.
It wasn’t until the second half that the Bengals began to reveal their stripes which have them at a league-worst 1-13. Gilmore picked off Dalton on the third play of the third quarter, which the Patriots converted into a N’Keal Harry 7-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal to take a 20-10 edge.
Gilmore’s pick-six, a 64-yard return, not only gave him a career-high six interceptions on the season, but moved him into sole possession of the NFL lead for picks, moving ahead of Devin McCourty, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marcus Peters in the process.
Rex Burkhead had a 33-yard touchdown run against his former team to close out the scoring for New England.
Still far from perfect, Brady finished the game 15 for 29 passing for 128 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t throw an interception for the first time in three weeks, and his 86.6 passer rating was his highest since Week 8 vs. the Browns (96.9).
In spite of another horrendous drop and a fumble, Sony Michel made some more strides in the running game with 89 yards on 19 carries. As a team, the Patriots racked up 175 yards on the ground, their highest output of the season.
Michel wasn't the only player with a bad drop today, either. Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu and even White all dropped passes which should have been caught; as a team, New England leads the league in drops with 24.
Sanu, who had just two catches for 13 yards against the team that originally drafted him in 2012, also lost a fumble on Sunday. However, due to not one, not two but three penalties on the Cincinnati defense on the play, it was negated.
Harry had two catches for 15 yards, on top of two rushes for 24 yards. It's baby steps, but Josh McDaniels made good on his promise to get Harry more involved in the offense.
Edelman's workload down the stretch certainly bears monitoring for the Patriots after his season-low in receptions (2) and yards (9). He was originally listed as questionable for Sunday's game with knee and shoulder ailments.
New England remains in possession of the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff picture, one game ahead of the Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) and two clear of the Houston Texans (9-5). The final two games of the regular season are at home, beginning this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. when the Buffalo Bills (9-4) head to Gillette Stadium. A Patriots win will sew up their 11th straight AFC East title.
Brady will enter the game with 538 career touchdown passes, one shy of Peyton Manning for the NFL record. Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, who plays on Monday night, currently has 537.