Bengals (10-4) at Patriots (7-7), Saturday, Dec. 24 at Gillette Stadium (Field Turf), 1 p.m. ET, TV: WKRC-TV Ch. 12, CBS regional, (Ian Eagle, Charles Davis, Evan Washburn), Radio: 700 WLW, WEBN-FM (102.7 FM), ESPN1530, (Dan Hoard, Dave Lapham)
FOXBORO — With a playoff berth already in the Christmas stocking, the Bengals can take a step closer to a second straight AFC North title with a Christmas Eve win in New England.
The Bengals clinched their spot in the postseason Thursday night when the Jaguars beat the Jets, 16-3, in the rain and wind of MetLife Stadium.
It’s hard to imagine the Bengals have clinched a playoff spot after starting 0-2, when the numbers predicted the team had just an 11 percent chance of making the postseason. But when you win 10 of your next 12 games, your odds increase dramatically.
Would ya look at that! pic.twitter.com/glmzBPbc1O
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) December 23, 2022
Now, it’s onto the next mission. Winning a second consecutive division title, something the franchise has never accomplished in 55 years of existence.
It’s never easy to win in Foxboro, despite everything that’s happened with the Patriots this season, including last Sunday’s hook-and-collateral disaster that gave the Raiders an unbelievable 30-24 win at Allegiant Stadium in the most inconceivable loss of the Bill Belichick era.
The Bengals have never won at Gillette Stadium in four regular season tries. There was the Bengals 7-6 win in the 2009 preseason when Chad Ochocinco kicked the decisive extra point in a victory over the Patriots.
The last Cincinnati regular season win in Foxboro came on Dec. 7, 1986 when James Brooks ran wild in a 31-7 Bengals win. Brooks had 163 yards rushing on 18 carries and 101 yards receiving on six receptions at old Sullivan Stadium.
While the Bengals won’t have the services of defensive end Sam Hubbard (calf), they are expected to get several key pieces back for Saturday, including pass rushing specialist Trey Hendrickson, who was wearing a splint on his right wrist this week at practice.
“He’ll protect himself, but I feel good about where he’s at,” head coach Zac Taylor said.
Hendrickson missed last week at Tampa Bay. Also returning is Mike Hilton, who injured his right knee on Dec. 11 against the Browns. The slot corner is expected to give it a run against the Patriots.
On the offensive side of the ball, Taylor says tight end Hayden Hurst could return from his right calf injury and start Saturday. But Taylor sounded just a bit more cautious on the tight end’s availability.
The current Bengals carry a six-game win streak into Gillette Stadium for a matchup with the Patriots on Saturday afternoon. Cincinnati, coming off a 34-23 victory at Tampa Bay in which it erased a 17-point deficit, now finds itself in a battle with Buffalo and Kansas City for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
The key for the Bengals pass attack will be accounting for two of the most fearsome pass rushers in the league in Matthew Judon and Josh Uche. Judon has 14.5 sacks this season while Uche has chipped in with 10.5.
The Bengals close out their regular-season schedule with a difficult stretch against three teams currently in the top half of the AFC standings. Following New England, the Bengals finish with home games against Buffalo (Jan. 2) and Baltimore (Jan. 8).
If the Bengals win all three and Kansas City loses once, the Bengals will be the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Cincinnati has found different ways to win over the course of its six-game streak, the team’s longest since 2015. In Week 15 at Tampa Bay, the Bengals recorded just 83 net yards offensively in the first half, with an opening-drive interception followed by three straight punts. The defense, meanwhile, felt the toll of injuries in the secondary as Buccaneers QB Tom Brady consistently found open receivers and finished the half with a pair of TD passes. Cincinnati went into the locker room down 17-3, matching its largest halftime deficit of the season.
But the Bengals recovered in the second half, scoring 31 consecutive second half points to overwhelm Tom Brady and the Bucs to win their sixth straight.
“I thought (the defense) did a great job stepping up in the second half — all the guys,” Taylor said. “This is the time of year where you’re going to lose some guys, so guys need to step up and keep the team going, and I saw a lot of that across the board.”
The offense this time capitalized on the short field opportunity, as Burrow found Tee Higgins in the back of the end zone for Cincinnati’s first TD of the day. With a newfound rhythm, the Bengals put pressure on Brady on the ensuing drive, and a sack by Logan Wilson led to DJ Reader punching the ball out and Joseph Ossai recovering at the Tampa Bay 13. Five plays later, Burrow connected with Tyler Boyd on third-and-goal to give the Bengals their first lead. Boyd, who suffered a dislocated finger early in Week 14 against Cleveland and underwent surgery, fought through for 35 yards on five catches.
“He was gritty all day,” Burrow said. “That shows his toughness, his leadership, his commitment to the team and organization. He played really well today for us and stepped up in some big spots.”
The defense quickly forced its third turnover of the quarter when three plays into the next drive, a handoff from Brady to RB Leonard Fournette was mishandled and Reader jumped on the loose ball. Starting yet another possession in Tampa Bay territory, Burrow completed four passes, the last of which being an eight-yard TD throw to WR Ja’Marr Chase that led to a 10-point Bengals lead. Chase, who returned from a hip injury in Week 13, led the team in receiving yards for a third straight game, netting 60 on seven catches.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit was not done turning Brady’s second half into a nightmare, as on the next drive Ossai tipped a pass high into the air and LB Germaine Pratt somehow got his hands under it for another interception. Taylor said in his postgame locker room address to the team that it was “one of the best interceptions I’ve seen in my life.” Though Cincinnati was unable to convert the turnover into more points, P Drue Chrisman landed a 46-yard punt just out of bounds at the Buccaneers’ two-yard line, helping the Bengals protect their lead as the fourth quarter clock continued to drain.
After the defense forced a quick three-and-out, Cincinnati cemented the win emphatically with a 13-play, 62-yard scoring drive that chewed up nearly seven minutes of game clock. The drive was capped off with a play-action pass to Mitchell Wilcox, who grew up in nearby Tarpon Springs, Fla., and played collegiately at the University of South Florida. Wilcox caught the ball at the line of scrimmage and beat his defender to the goal line for his first career TD, as chants of “Who Dey!” rained down from the traveling Bengals faithful.
“Just an awesome team effort,” Taylor said. “It’s probably one of those games that we needed, to be quite honest with you. We got kind of smacked in the mouth a little bit in the first half and then responded the right way. That’s a good December win on the road against a team leading their division.”
The Bengals now aim to keep their momentum rolling toward the postseason, just as they did in 2021 prior to a run to Super Bowl LVI. Though their recent — and upcoming — schedule contains teams with similar aspirations, Cincinnati remains confident heading into each matchup, carrying the mantra, “They gotta play us.” This week presents another challenge for Burrow, as the Patriots’ defense ranks in the top 10 in the NFL in points, total yards and passing yards allowed per game.
“The last four weeks have all been tough wins,” Burrow said. “(We’ve been) playing some really good teams and some really good defenses. We’ve risen to the challenge just about every week, continued to play well in big spots. Guys are making plays in big spots, so that’s exciting.”
The Patriots lead 17-9 in the series overall, and they have a 10-2 advantage in games played at New England.
Cincinnati’s first victory in the series was a memorable one, as the 1970 team won 45-7 over Boston at Riverfront Stadium to clinch the AFC Central Division title. The Paul Brown-coached Bengals, in their third season, became at the time the youngest franchise ever to reach the playoffs.
In 1988, a Super Bowl-bound Bengals team opened the season with a 6-0 start before losing 27-21 at New England in Game 7.
The series began at baseball’s storied Fenway Park. In an American Football League game in 1968, the Patriots beat the expansion Bengals, 33-14.
This should be a game where talent wins out. The Bengals have it in their quarterback, their receivers and their offensive line. The Bengals have won six straight and have good vibes on their side. The Patriots are coming off an epic collapse against the Raiders. This would usually be the kind of game that Tom Brady would rally the Patriots the next week. Brady is now in Tampa and Mac Jones is running a dysfunctional offense that has been hit-and-miss all season. The Bengals shouldn’t stub their toe in this one.
Bengals 31, Patriots 17