If there was a day the Bengals could knock off the Super Bowl champion Patriots, Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium looked to be it when they were tied at 10-10 with just 1:30 left in the first half and New England quarterback Tom Brady looking unusually unsteady.
But then the Patriots do what they do and fry you in your own mistakes. In the next nine minutes they forced three turnovers and turned them into 17 points for a 27-10 lead during a 34-13 victory before a stunned gathering that had watched the Bengals take a 10-7 lead late into the first half behind the dominant play of Bengals running back Joe Mixon.
Mixon was fabulous again a week after getting a career-high 146 yards in Cleveland. He ripped off 136 yards on a season-high 25 carries to pull within 75 yards of 1,000 yards. And he spent much of the fourth quarter of the bench as the Bengals tried to pass their way back into it.
Quarterback Andy Dalton suffered the fourth four-interception game of his career, all in the second half as the Bengals committed the cardinal sin against a Bill Belichick team: Five turnovers. Dalton went just 17 of 31 for 151 yards. The Bengals defense played well enough, holding Brady to 15 of 29 passing for 129 yards. But turnover margin wrote this one.
New England's Stephon Gilmore showed why he's the best cornerback in the league when he pulled off two of the turnovers with his fourth and fifth interceptions of the season on the first two drives of the second half. That second one was the fourth pick-six against the Bengals this season and both were against Dalton's favorite target, wide receiver Tyler Boyd.
Gilmore made sure Boyd didn't get a catch or even a target in the first half and on that second half's first drive on third-and-six from the Bengals 29, Dalton went to Boyd over the middle and Gilmore was so draped on Boyd that Gilmore wrenched it from Boyd at the Bengals 43 and Brady made it hurt this time. He went back to those screens and jet sweeps that have hounded the Bengals all season (this time to Sony Michel), but the killer was the third-and-seven touchdown pass from the 7.
The Bengals spent the entire first half getting to Brady, but on this pass he had plenty of time (more than five seconds according to the CBS-TV clock) to pat the ball like the old days and he found a diving N'Keal Harry for the touchdown that gave the Pats a 20-10 lead.
But the Bengals weren't deterred. They kept going back to their best player and were rewarded. Mixon got 19 yards on his first two carries of the half for the eighth 100-yard game of his career, third this season and two straight. He got 13 running behind left guard Michael Jordan's push, but after they got the ball to him for a six-yard gain on a screen, right guard John Miller was called for being downfield and then went to the locker room with concussion protocol and was replaced by Billy Price.
Devastating. First-and-15 and Dalton went hunting for Boyd as the Pats blitzed. Gilmore appeared to bait Dalton as he let Boyd go over the middle. But as Dalton threw it, Gilmore undercut the route and took off on a 64-yard touchdown return.
They make you make mistakes. Even on a second-half kick. Darius Phillips caught the ball three yards deep in the end zone and couldn't get it back to the 15. And Dalton then threw his third interception of the quarter. It didn't help that wide receiver Alex Erickson mis-timed his jump down the right sideline and cornerback J.C. Jackson was there when the ball came down.
It summed up the quarter and the season. It made the Patriots plus-23 in turnover differential and the Bengals minus-15. It was just tough sledding for Dalton. He couldn't get a completion to wide receiver John Ross until 12:32 left in the game.
But the play that summed it came with 5:38 left in the game. Here the Bengals needed to play a clean game and when they finally forced a fumble (safety Jessie Bates III unloaded on old friend Mohamed Sanu) that was recovered by cornerback B.W. Webb at the Bengals 10, they were called for three penalties.
So when New England finally got the ball at the Bengals 33, another old friend, Patriots running back Rex Burkhead, took off for a touchdown run in his old building. He ran up the middle past middle linebacker Germaine Pratt and then juked Bates into a missed tackle. In his seven victories over the Bengals, Brady has seen the Patriots rack up at least 34 points.
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 half-time 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 Erickson punt return with 1:30 left in the half 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. PLus, Erickson emerged from the pile with the ball, but the ref was already pointing to New England.
Yet 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 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 drive came on a screen pass he swung out of the backfield.
Meanwhile the Bengals offense was Mixon left, Mixon right and 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. Dalton went 7 for 8 for 55 yards and a touchdown and didn't have a target to 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 first 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 29-yarder. Mixon, in what is becoming his patented move, 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 wide receiver Julian Edelman as end Carl Lawson and Dunlap met at the quarterback, allowing them to go right back 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. Mixon would end that the Bengals' drive of the ga,e 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 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.
Check out gameday photos of Week 15 as the Bengals host the New England Patriots from Paul Brown Stadium.
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 field 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 1:36 and gave the ball back to Brady with 2:05 left in the half. But Dunlap got that sack to set up the controversial punt.