Pats Leap On Bengals Mistakes

A disputed fumble on an Alex Erickson punt return set up a Patriots field goal to close the first half.
A disputed fumble on an Alex Erickson punt return set up a Patriots field goal to close the first half.
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Alex Erickson (12) fumbles a punt for a New England Patriots recovery in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)

You knew the Bengals and Patriots couldn't get out of the first half without some sort of controversy as the Patriots took a 13-10 halftime lead on Nick Folk's 46-yard field goal with five seconds left. And it happened when New England forced a disputed fumble on an Alex Erickson punt return with 1:30 left in the game that was recovered in front of an enraged Cincinnati bench at the Bengals 23.

It appeared that Patriots Pro Bowl gunner Matthew Slater interfered with Erickson when he had his hand in there as Erickson tried to catch it, but there was no review from the booth as needed in the final two minutes.

But Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who misfired all half, couldn't make them pay the way he usually does thanks to Cincinnati's rampaging pass rush from its front four. He overthrew old friend Mohamed Sanu in the end zone and on third down left end Carlos Dunlap, who had been hitting Brady all half, finally got the sack to force the field goal.

It was their second sack of Brady in the half, the first one authored by right end Sam Hubbard as he realized a boyhood moment sacking Brady while making him look all of his 42 years. Brady was just 10 of 21 for 95 yards in the first half and his 23-yard touchdown pass to James White on the game's opening came on a screen pass he swung out of the backfield.

Meanwhile the Bengals offense was Joe Mixon left, Joe Mixon right and Joe Mixon up the middle. Zac Taylor's game plan worked to perfection as Mixon carried it for 83 yards while the Bengals kept the ball for 16:36. Quarterback Andy Dalton went seven-for-eight for 55 yards and a touchdown and didn't have a target to leading receiver Tyler Boyd.

The Bengals mashed it on their first drive against the NFL's top-ranked defense, running it on their first eight plays for 67 yards before Dalton found tight end Cethan Carter for the final eight yards on his first NFL catch and also touchdown catch that tied it at seven midway through the first quarter. Facing third-and-three, Dalton threw his only pass of the drive and found the little used Carter wide open and he spun inside cornerback Jonathan Jones.

It broke the Bengals' NFL-long drought of 20 straight games without their offense scoring on the first drive of the game. It was all Mixon for 43 yards on five carries and a pinch of running back Giovani Bernard with three carries for 24. The big run was Mixon's wondrous-where-did-he-go 24-yarder. Mixon, in is becoming his patented move, Mixon cut back to the back side when the front side only offered a wall. The only person on the back side was linebacker Jamie Collins, a certain five-yard loss. But Mixon made him and linebacker Kyle Van Noy miss before he ran out of the grasp of defensive back Duron Harmon.

The Bengals then drove out the Pats on three downs when Brady threw low to Edeleman as end Carl Lawson and Carlos Dunlap met at the quarterback, allowing them to go right to Mixon.

On the first snap, Mixon went off the right side for 13 yards behind one of those double tight-end sets that Taylor has been using more and more the past few weeks. He would end that drive with 72 yards on ten carries and the Bengals would have 96 on 13 carries, a stunning stat against the Patriots' fourth-ranked run defense that came in giving up 95 per game. The Bengals had 106 of their 161 total yards on the ground.

That set up play-action and tight end Tyler Eifert was open down the middle for 19 yards and a spot in the red zone. But Carter's false start led to Randy Bullock's 34-yard field goal that gave the Bengals a 10-7 lead with 14 seconds left in the first quarter.

Then on the game's next two drives, each defense staged a fourth-down stop. They forced Brady to throw incomplete on third-and-four and fourth-and-four with both throws going over the middle to old friend Mohamed Sanu. On third down, Lawson and Dunlap got near Brady's feet and on fourth down, with cornerback William Jackson III in coverage, Sanu dropped it.

On the Bengals' ensuing drive, Mixon continued to do it all. He drew a hold on Patriots linebacker John Simon and on a first-down pass Van Noy hit Dalton's arm as he threw and the ball skied into the air, an infield fly-rule ball the Pats defense always gets. But Mixon looked up and linebacker Don't'a Hightower didn't and Mixon caught the 11-yard carom as Dalton looked on sheepishly.

So on fourth-and-one from the Patriots 30, there was no doubt where the Bengals were headed. At that point Mixon had 81 yards on 13 carries, but he couldn't get it up the middle against what looked to be the Pats goal-line unit led by nose tackle Danny Shelton.

Brady didn't let the chance go by and got a tying goal to make it 10-10 with 3:51 left in the half. He made one throw, a 14-yarder to his tight end, but he missed a couple to Edelman. Then the Bengals made their first faux pas of the game when they went three-and-out in about 15 seconds and gave the ball back to Brady in about a minute.

Check out gameday photos of Week 15 as the Bengals host the New England Patriots from Paul Brown Stadium.

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