Joe Mixon was good Sunday. Very good. Good enough to dust off Cedric Benson's 282 rushing yards in consecutive games from the last two games of the 2008 season and match it with a 136-yard effort against the best defense and defensive mind in football. Good enough that even as Patriots head Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady clinched their 11th straight post-season berth with a 34-13 victory at Paul Brown Stadium, they saluted the Bengals MVP.
Brady, the GOAT himself, told Mixon, "Great player, hell of a runner." And Belichick called him the best back in the league. He didn't comment on the team suspension of a staffer who filmed the Patriots sideline in Cleveland last Sunday while Mixon was going for a career high 146. But he did say about Mixon, "He runs so hard and is so hard to tackle."
Still not good enough to overcome five turnovers. Who is? The Bengals haven't won a game making at least five turnovers in 43 years and they weren't going to do it against the 42-year-old Brady. The man senses the kill like something out of Animal Planet. Which is about right because he'd be the first to tell you he was throwing ducks early and often. But when they needed him to make a throw, he made it. It came in the wake of the Bengals' first turnover and when he hit that seven-yard touchdown pass on third-and-seven to give them a 20-10 lead on the first drive of the second half, it was as good as done.
"Mistakes, critical errors," said wide receiver Alex Erickson. "And that's when they take advantage. That's their modus operandi, and they did that today."
Mixon's 25 carries were at the heart of head coach Zac Taylor's game plan designed to give quarterback Andy Dalton's wide receivers some room against that suffocating Patriots secondary led by the league's reigning best cornerback in the league, Stephon Gilmore. Taylor dressed as many tight ends (four) as he did wide receivers and he used them. When the Patriots went bigger to stop Mixon, the Bengals matched with what seemed to be their most usage this season of double and triple tight end sets, as well as their most liberal doses of extra tackle Fred Johnson, for much of that first half.
"We had talked about this being a two-tight end type of game," said Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty. "It turned out to be two tight ends, three tight ends — a heavy diet there. I think just realizing that, and adjusting to it, and doing a better job tackling. (Mixon) is a really good back — runs hard. We missed a lot of arm tackles, and then I thought we just did a better job of wrapping him up, getting him down, and getting a second and third guy to drive him back."
Mixon saw the adjustments forming late in the second quarter and the offensive line was still saying, "C'mon, keep running the ball. Keep running the ball." To his credit, Taylor did.
"They just kept going to a jam front and then having, like, eight (men) in the box," Mixon said. "Them boys started jamming the lineup and having eight in the box. But we were still having success putting a hat on a hat. So I think that was a great thing that we did, man.
"Coach, I think he made a great adjustment and put our big guys up on their bigs and put a hat on a hat," Mixon said. "And that's what football is all about. It's not about any of that pretty, cute stuff, especially in this position. We come to get down and dirty. And like I said, I think they did a great job. But in the pass game, just guys, we've got to go make plays. A lot of contested balls. But we've got to go have them. Them guys on the defense, they make great plays and we've got to be better."
A jammed box should give air to the pass. It did not because the Patriots won the one-on-one battles. Taylor didn't take into account that his receivers couldn't get separation if his running backs averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 30 carries, which Mixon and Giovani Bernard did. He didn't plan on their third most rushing yards of the season (164) being paired with their third fewest passing yards (151). Their longest play of the day was Mixon's wow back-door 29-yarder through three Pats.
"The passing game was unacceptable," said wide receiver Tyler Boyd, their leading receiver who had just three catches for 26 yards.
Boyd didn't catch a ball until 9:15 left in the third quarter. Their No. 2 receiver, John Ross, didn't catch a ball until 11 minutes left in the game. With an Eye of the Tiger banner flung across PBS touting the Bengals drafting newly minted Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow of LSU with the No. 1 pick, Dalton suffered the fourth four-interception game of his career.
If there was ever a passing of the torch, that seemed to be it as all of Dalton's picks came in the second half against the greatest quarterback who ever lived. Even Bengals Super Bowl quarterback Boomer Esiason seemed to be sanction the coronation when he presented Burrow with a Bengals helmet on the CBS pre-game show.
But Taylor was adamant in his defense of Dalton. The usually cautious Taylor uncharacteristically ripped his receivers as he stood up for him. Taylor seemed to think three of the balls were the fault of the target, Boyd, Erickson and Ross, because they weren't as aggressive as the throws. It looked like Boyd could do nothing about Gilmore's pick-six and he was looking for a check to a slant since Gilmore had the outside leverage on an out route to the field against man coverage.
Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson got his two interceptions when Erickson mis-timed his jump on a deep a deep ball down the sideline and Ross didn't look back up at the ball and come back as he ran a go route and Jackson leaped in front of him with no problem. And on the first pick, Gilmore was draped all over Boyd on a ball he seemingly ripped from him over the middle, the one where Boyd said Gilmore was sitting on his route.
"Three of them were against man-to-man coverage, one-on-ones. We got bullied... we did," Taylor said. "Guys could go compete, knock the ball down, go get a one-on-one. I think Gilmore had what, two of them? Ok. So their guys went and competed. They have a tough secondary. They play man-on-man coverage, and Gilmore's one of the best in the league. We saw what that looks like today. The quarterback's going take all of the blame for it, when in reality he taking some one-on-one opportunities that we had to take to be in that game, and go make some plays. You're counting on some guys to get some separation and go compete, and they got the better of us on a lot of those.
"And then they had the two (interceptions to Erickson and Ross) late in the game, where I just felt like they went and competed. We can go up there and try to break those balls up, give ourselves a chance and get an incompletion, worst case. Andy needed to be aggressive in those situations, and it's what we were asking him to do. So, I don't dispute him going to any of those areas with any of those balls."
Boyd said Gilmore got him on those two plays ("He's at the top of the route. He doesn't do anything spectacular, he just gets in good position"), but that he won most of his one-on-ones.
"Three of (the interceptions) were on us," Erickson said. "We need to get better separation. We have to make a better play on the ball, run better routes. It wasn't good enough as a receiving group."
But the running game was. Very good. It was going so good that at one point Bernard, on his way to 27 yards on five carries, stayed in when Mixon told them to keep Bernard in there "because he was doing his thing."
"I feel like I want to set the tone for what kind of game it's going to be and let people know that it ain't sweet," Mixon said. "We've got to keep grinding man. I'm happy for how (his blockers) played. None of them quitting. But at the same time, we've got to figure out ways to win. And we haven't done that. That's been the common theme throughout the season. We've just got to figure it out."
Sunday was easy to figure out. Five turnovers.
"(The Patriots) feed off of turnovers and they make you pay for them. They've been like that since, bleep, probably since I first started playing football," Mixon said. "Those guys have been like that since I was little. That's a disciplined football team. All those guys are going to be in their gap. They all going to do their job and they do it to the best of their ability. I tip my hat off to them. They created a lot of turnovers and they didn't make not one."
Just doing their job. That's how the whole week started. It's how it ended.
"I tip my hat to them," said Mixon, who got a salute back from both Belichick and Brady. "They created a lot of turnovers and they didn't make not one."