The Cincinnati Bengals were lucky to escape New England with a win on Saturday, and not just on the football field.
Mother Nature herself was aparently on a personal vendetta to prevent football from being played by punishing much of the US with an intensely bitter cold front that caused massive backups on highways, brought down power lines, and froze mustaches in place. In fact, the scariest part of the Bengals game versus the Patriots came after the final whistle, when the plane carrying the team was forced to land in New York after experiencing engine trouble. No word yet on whether Mother Nature is a top suspect or not.
Regardless, the Bengals got several breaks on Saturday. The ball bounced their way in the most critical moment. But that’s what great teams do - they don’t wait for those moments, they force them.
At the start of the contest, the Patriots seemed to be in a generous mood. Saturday was Christmas Eve, after all. By the end of the first half, the scoreboard read 22 - 0. The Bengals were in control of this game in every way, or so it seemed. There were troubling signs, even if they were hard to spot with a three-score lead obscuring our sensibility.
The run game, which had been such a dominant force during the start of the Bengals seven-game win streak, was glaringly absent, as running backs Joe Mixon and Semaje Perine found themselves swallowed up by a stout Patriots front. If it wasn’t for a nineteen-yard scamper by Mixon early in the third quarter, the Bengals would have finished the day with a paltry 54 rushing yards on 23 carries. Fortunately, the Bengals passing game was clicking - at least in the first half.
Another massive development was the injury to right tackle La’el Collins in the first quarter. Bengals beat reporter Kelsey Conway broke the news that he suffered an MCL and ACL tear and is done for the year. It’s a huge blow to an offensive line that had been gelling at the right time. Collins hasn't been spectacular, but he provided a reliable presence in the run game and consistency in pass protection - although he's struggled against some of the premier pass rushers in the NFL. He's undeniably been an upgrade, and he won't be easy to replace.
The final ominous portend was kicker Evan McPherson downgrading from “Money Mac” to “Penny Mac” once again. He missed his first two PATs of the game, and then missed a decisive 43-yard field goal in the fourth quarter - a chip shot for the guy we knew in last year’s playoffs. Needless to say, he’s back on nickname-probation, and at this point, he’s got a lot of work to do to regain our trust.
So, after a first half that was all smiles and back-pats, the Patriots returned in the second half with a vengeance. It’s almost as if the entire Patriots strategy was to lure the Bengals into a false sense of security by spotting them a 22-point lead, only to turn the Christmas Eve-tables on them while they’re drunk on eggnog. With a guy like Bill Belichick as their head coach, I wouldn’t put it past them. The crazy part is it nearly worked.
I almost forgot - there was a fourth ominous portend! Late in the second quarter, with the Bengals driving deep into Patriots territory, receiver Tyler Boyd stopped short like Frank Costanza on a route, allowing Patriots safety Devin McCourty to intercept a Joe Burrow pass in the red zone. It was the first miscommunication of the day, but it wouldn’t be the last.
That’s because another crippling miscommunication in the third quarter allowed Patriots cornerback/receiver/do-anything-and-everything athlete Marcus Jones to intercept a pass intended for Ja’Marr Chase and return it to the house for the Patriots first points of the day. Facing a seven-man pass rush from the Patriots on 3rd and 11, Burrow ripped a pass to the sideline toward his trusted target. However, said-trusted target continued to streak downfield, never looking for the ball. Jones, on the other hand, was happy to do an about-face and put his punt/kick return skills to good use.
This wouldn’t be Ja’Marr’s only mistake of the game. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Bengals barely hanging on to a four-point lead, Ja’Marr fumbled near midfield, giving the Patriots one last opportunity to cash in for a game-swinging touchdown. It was a gut-punch, and the entire Bengals team was reeling. Five plays later, the Patriots were knocking on the door at the Bengals five-yard line.
But, as has become almost too predictable at this point, the Bengals D rose to the occasion. The Patriots handed the ball off to running back Rhamondre Stevenson, only for him to be met by multiple Bengals defenders in the backfield. Stevenson, being every bit of 230 lbs., tried to fight through all the contact, but that fight only allowed Bengals safety Vonn Bell to punch the ball out with his right arm in the middle of the scrum. Bengals defensive tackle B.J. Hill was Johnny-on-the-spot and recovered the ball, effectively putting this game on ice.
The Bengals narrowly escaped Fox-Burrow. What looked like a gift-wrapped win in the first half nearly became a lump of coal by the end. I don’t know what possessed Rhamondre Steven-Claus to hand out the football like that, but the Bengals won’t complain about his giving spirit.
With the win, the Bengals remain atop the AFC North standings, with a massive Monday Night showdown with the Buffalo Bills next week and a possible division-clinching tilt with the Baltimore Ravens approaching in the final week of the season. The Bengals didn’t give up any ground, but this game was an important reminder of how difficult getting back to the Super Bowl is going to be. Mistakes are a part of any NFL game, but limiting them, and not allowing them to snowball, are the hallmarks of any championship contender. Good thing the Bengals have made this second-nature.