CINCINNATI — The Patriots are playoff-bound.
For that, much like most of their good fortune this season, they can thank their defense.
Or, more specifically, they can thank Stephon Gilmore.
Gilmore’s pair of interceptions in the third quarter blew open a tense jungle tussle with the Bengals into a 34-13 win Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. The All-Pro cornerback raced his second pick back 64 yards for a touchdown that gifted the Pats a three-possession lead. As the Patriots (11-3) shut out Cincinnati over the middle quarters, their offense finally found its footing and never trailed again.
The Pats will be appearing in the playoffs for an 11th straight year.
Tom Brady completed 15 of 29 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns. The Pats rushed for 175 yards, a season high.
Ahead 13-10 after Gilmore’s initial pick, Brady hit N’Keal Harry on a 7-yard score early in the third quarter. Six plays later, Gilmore jumped another pass from Andy Dalton (17-31, 151 yards, one TD, four INTs) and went the distance. Blowout winds began stirring.
J.C. Jackson intercepted two passes of his own in the second half, when the Bengals managed just three points. Scoring came far easier in the first quarter.
The Pats cruised downfield on the game’s opening series and capped it with a celebration of Brady’s touchdown pass to James White, who caught a soft screen pass and zig-zagged 23 yards into the end zone. The drive covered 75 yards in all. The Pats managed 78 total through the rest of the half.
Cincinnati immediately answered the Pats’ initial touchdown with an 8-yard passing score from Dalton to tight end Cethan Carter. After a Patriots punt, Bengals kicker Randy Bullock hit a 34-yard field goal to go up 10-7. Cincinnati successfully played bully ball against the Pats, deploying an extra tight end and even an additional offensive lineman in favor of its traditional third receiver.
Running back Joe Mixon rushed for 72 over his first two possessions and left several would-be tacklers in his wake.
But bully ball officially stopped at the 4:12 mark of the second quarter, when the Patriots turned Cincy’s backfield into a locker and stuffed Mixon twice for a turnover on downs. After linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley halted him for a short gain on third-and-2, nose tackle Danny Shelton swallowed Mixon up on fourth down.
The Pats offense then marched until it stalled on the outskirts of the red zone and brought kicker Nick Folk out for a 40-yard try to tie the game. Following Folk’s make, the defense continued to gain strength late in the quarter and dropped Cincinnati for a three-and-out. But it wasn’t until Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater forced a fumbled punt return at 1:35 remaining in the half that his team could take a lead.
Back with possession, the Pats positioned Folk for a 46-yard field goal with seconds to play and trotted into halftime with a 13-10 edge.