FOXBOROUGH, Mass. _ If there's a current Scrooge among Bengaldom's list of villains, the greatest coach of his day has to be up there.
After all, the Bengals came into Saturday on Christmas Eve without a win in Gillette Stadium during Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's 23 seasons he has won six Super Bowls. In 20 games against him here or in Cleveland or in Cincinnati, he has won all but four of them
But he had never faced a Bengals team quarterbacked by Joe Burrow and his nasty-in-the-clutch defense that came within 39 seconds of a Lombardi Trophy of their own last season. Belichick had never played a Bengals team streaking into January with seven straight victories and playing with the single-mindedness of getting back that last minute in Los Angeles. The 11-4 Bengals are playing like, well, how Belichick's Brady Patriots used to make December and January their own.
If there was ever a game between the early-century class of the league scratching and scheming to stay current and the class of the roaring '20s, this was it. As clear as the half-time boos that rained down on Patriots quarterback Mac Jones from the surly Gillette crowd. The Patriots are on the brink of being out of the playoffs because of two unthinkable turnovers in the last minute the last two weeks. The Bengals have won the last two games because they forced turnovers that would have been unthinkable if they didn't get them.
"There's two-and-a half decades of precedent where they win that game," said Ted Karras, the old Patriot center turned Bengal. "Dangerous and very scary … We could see them again. They're a very dangerous team that is well coached, well prepared and plays really hard. That was a gritty win and we made it way harder on ourselves than we needed to."
But that's what these Bengals do. If it's a rout (Carolina), a grinder (Tennessee), a rally (Tampa Bay), a classic (Kansas City) or like on Saturday, surviving a blown lead, they have had all the answers in the first unbeaten November and December in Bengals history. They haven't been living off fish food, either. Those teams still have a shot to make the playoffs.
"We are playing championship football and adversity happens during the games," said strong safety Vonn Bell, Saturday's Answer Man. "Great teams always find a way to win, especially in unkind conditions, like it's cold, it's an away game, momentum shifts, and adversity, like I said. We just find a way to win and play team football."
The Patriots may be scuffling at 7-8 with postseason chances dwindling with the days. But they still have championship DNA. They even challenge the coin toss. Karras, the natural game captain for the day, was going to call heads in honor of Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater, a Karras favorite and the guy that always takes heads.
But Karras had to call an audible and lost the flip.
"I was mad that we lost, but I couldn't pick the Patriots logo," Karras said. "I was thinking heads all day, but when the heads was a Patriots logo, I couldn't pick it. I should've gone with Slater, he always picks heads. I thought all week, I'm going to pick heads. When he showed me the coin and it was the Patriot, I'm not picking flying Elvis. But, it didn't work out. I'm glad we went right down and scored."
The flying Elvis is out. The team that used to have the leaping tiger for a logo is in.
The Bengals have won three AFC championships, lost three Super Bowls by a dozen points combined, won five AFC Central titles and five AFC Norths. But Burrow led them to what they've never done until they beat the best big game coach of the century Saturday and finished off an unbeaten November and December. He's now won a Brady-Belichick-like 10 straight in December and January.
"Defense found a way to win, they forced a turnover to win us the game," said Burrow, whose green Christmas sweater featuring the defiant seriousness of Parks and Rec's Ron Swanson summed up just how close it was. "They continue to make plays like that at the ends of games. We've got to do a better job on offense of putting teams away. Like I said, I'm never going to apologize for a win. Just got to keep finding ways to do it."
As good as Burrow was in the first half (his 284 were the most ever on a first half against a Belichick defense) this was another game about the defense.
He did out-chess Belichick on the first drive when he caught them in the huddle with 12 and did it again on the next drive when he caught them trying to get the right 11 as the Pats were changing personnel and Burrow quicked it up and zinged a beauty down the seam to wide receiver Trenton Irwin running into New England's two-deep and Irwin made a fingertip catch a hair before safety Devin McCourty got there for a 23-yard touchdown and 9-for-9 passing at that point and a perfect passer rating.
But Belichick moved his pieces around, too, after halftime. He brought more pressure and one of the blitzes short-circuited that computer-chip consistency of Burrow's back-shoulder throw to wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase and turned cornerback Marcus Jones' pick-six into their first points of the day to change the game until Bell and his defense won it at the end.
It couldn't have looked Scroogier for the Bengals.
The Pats were on their five with 65 seconds left and because of a missed extra point, a missed two-pointer and a missed three-pointer, all they needed was a touchdown to basically walk off the Bengals back into an AFC North tie they can't break.
But like this defense did in December in every game, they came up with a fourth-quarter turnover. Linebacker Germaine Pratt won the Kansas City game when he yanked it out of tight end Travis Kelce's arms. The next week free safety Jessie Bates III subdued Deshaun Watson's Browns with a sideline interception. Last week they flummoxed Tom Brady into four straight turnovers, the last one that man Pratt again taking edge Joseph Ossai's pass defensed off the turf.
So while the Gillette gulls whaled all around them, the defense came up with its final line of the ballad "A December To Remember."
"There's no way they're going to get seven. That's how we feel about our defense," said nose tackle DJ Reader of the NFL's fourth best red zone defense when it comes to preventing touchdowns. "If you have to get seven to end the game, we think we've got the advantage. There's more pressure on them than us. We just have to make a play and keep them out of the box. That's just the way we look at it."
In true Belichickian form, there was no mystery here. After the Pats forced the Bengals' third turnover of the game on Chase's fumble in the flat with 3:12 left on the Cincy 43, New England turned to its strength and ran the ball and they were going to give it to him here with 900-yard back Rhamondre Stevenson. As they had done to Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb in this streak, they eliminated Stevenson with 10 yards on four carries in the first half.
But now he was getting room and they were at the 5. Reader did what he does and stood up Stevenson,
"We know somebody was coming to punch the ball out," Reader said. "People were searching to do it all game. Guys did a good job heat seeking trying to get that ball out every time."
It was Bell, he of the captain's patch and AFC title game overtime pick and offday morning DB meetings. He called it "a little stab." As always, it seems like defensive tackle B.J. Hill is always there to clean up what is cut off and came up with his third fumble recovery of the season.
The stat sheet gave the fumble recovery to nose tackle Josh Tupou, who was there. But head coach Zac Taylor gave the game ball to Hill and it was Hill who came out of the pile with it.
"You just have to find the ball and get it and being in the right place at the right time. As far as making big plays, I am there to help you get the ball," Hill said. "I had the ball kind of early, and I was trying to get up with it and people were holding me, I think. I couldn't tell what the heck was going on and I knew I had it and knew we were going to get it. It was big play by Vonn."
His teammates were calling Bell's little stab big and it certainly was a huge lunge in this duel on top of the AFC.
"Dog. Leader by example. Dog. And he's going to do it first," Ossai said.
"He's going in with that killer mindset to get us the win," said Pratt, who should know.
"Vonn has continued to do that his entire career really. He's a guy I feel like should have made the Pro Bowl with all the plays that he's made this year," said Burrow, who is.
"Best safety in the damn league. The best. Clutch. He's clutch. When we need a play, he does it all the time," said cornerback Eli Apple, who could have been talking about his entire defense.