CINCINNATI – The inevitability of Sunday was thick in the air inside Paul Brown Stadium.
Even when the Bengals went up, 10-7, there was the sense there was no way the incompetent Bengals were going to make an already miserable week worse for the Patriots. The Patriots were 10-3 and down 10-7 early in the second quarter and needed a pick-me-up in the worst way to avoid sliding down the slope to a three-game losing skid they haven’t endured since 2002.
Thanks to Stephon Gilmore and Matthew Slater, the Patriots woke from a slumber and beat the Bengals, 34-13, at the depressed home of Cincinnati’s NFL franchise.
The defensive line stuffed Joe Mixon twice for a combined yard when the Bengals only needed two to move the chains. That turned into a field goal.
Then Slater stripped the ball from Alex Erickson on a punt and the Patriots turned that into a field goal for a 13-10 lead before the half.
“After the first drive of the game, we were obviously on the run a little bit defensively,” Belichick told me. “They also made a big stop on third-and-one, and they also got a nice surge on us once on fourth down, too. Those were big plays for us. You know, Matt (Slater) works very hard on those plays for us. It doesn’t matter if it’s coverage or downing the ball on punts, he does it. Also, the timing of his tackling and precision compressing the coverage, he does that well for us.”
The third quarter belonged to Gilmore. He beat Tyler Boyd to the spot on the third play of the second half for a pick that the Patriots turned into a Tom Brady-to-N’Keal Harry touchdown. His second interception came as Andy Dalton was feeling pressure and threw an ill-advised pass in the right flat that Gilmore jumped for an easy 64-yard touchdown that put New England up, 27-10.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 15, 2019
“The first one I knew the middle route,” Gilmore said. “I undercut it and made a good play. On the second one, I jumped it in mixed coverage, so knew the pressure was going to get there.”
Ballgame. Big-time players make big plays. Big-time teams don’t sweat it when a 1-12 team that embarrassed them off the field in the week leading up to the game shows some life. Onto the playoffs for an 11th straight season officially for the Patriots.
“I have great guys around me,” Gilmore added. “I’m just trying to get better each and every weekend.”
“I always call him elite,” said Slater of the player he is watching in awe week in and week out. “His play on the field is unmatched. As a teammate, I love watching him play. He plays at an elite level and showed it today when we needed it. He stepped up as he’s done all year long. I love watching him play.”
There’s been so much attention in games like Sunday on the mood of Tom Brady. Is he still having fun? Is all of this punishment still worth it to him? After completing just 15 of 29 passes for 128 yards and a pair of touchdowns, you do wonder.
But there is no such doubt in the tone of Gilmore and the defense after Sunday.
“We’re making the plays we did in practice,” Gilmore said. “It’s not just one person. We’re having fun.
“We weren’t trying to be perfect. They have a good running back. Joe Mixon is a good player, hard to tackle. It’s not perfect. They have good players over there. We’re just trying to be in a good position. You never know when those plays are going to come. It could be anybody. We feed off each other.”
As for Slater’s momentum-turning play?
“It’s not about me,” Slater said. “I’ve been blessed with this opportunity to still get down there in my old age. I’m thankful for that and to be a part of this football team.”
There might be some discipline coming down from the NFL this week over the ridiculousness of what happened in the Cleveland press box on Dec. 8. But the Patriots have much, much bigger fish to fry and much more important tape to watch – that of the surging Buffalo Bills.
“We didn’t even know about any of that,” McCourty told me with a smile. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
Slater was asked if Saturday at Gillette might feel like a playoff game.
“It is,” Slater said. “It’s going to be a battle. They’re a great football team and will give us everything we can handle. It’s going to be a great challenge.”
“I think it starts with the mentality of one game at a time,” McCourty told me. “Just stringing them together, and trying to play good games and being in position. That’s one thing we do a good job of, is giving ourselves a chance. There’s ups and downs in a season, but I think, at the end of the day, we always give ourselves a chance. Because of that, next week we’ll have a chance to play for a championship. That’s what you want. You want to have a chance to do that, and making the playoffs is always a part of the season. But for us, it’s about playing for championships. It starts tomorrow, and we get a chance to try and win our division.
“We’re going to play on a short week, and we’re going against a team that’s going to come in here, and be ready to go. We played in Buffalo early in the season, and it came down to the last couple of plays. They’re a really good football team — they know us well, we know them well. It will be hard-nosed, blue-collar fighting — throwing heavyweight punches at one another. We’ve got to be ready next week at home, but that’s why we play the game — for those type of games.”
These 2019 Patriots have had their fair share of great challenges. They have a quarterback trying desperately to show he can still perform at the hall of fame championship level that has defined his career. They have receivers that are either rookies or just banged up. They have questionable consistency along the offensive line.
And they have another moronic controversy following them about.
But if Sunday showed anything in clinching a playoff berth for an 11th straight season, they still have leaders in the locker room capable of carrying them through the big moments.