The first half was a completely different game.
New England (11-3) moved down the field with ease on the opening drive and scored on a 23-yard pass from Tom Brady to James White to take the lead just over three minutes in, but Cincinnati put the offense on Joe Mixon’s back and responded with a touchdown drive of its own and the Bengals looked every bit the aggressor until the turnover troubles began at the end of the half.
Mixon carried the ball on the first five plays from scrimmage, then Giovani Bernard ran three times and the Bengals scored on an eight-yard pass from Dalton to Cethan Carter on third-and-3. The Bengals hadn’t scored on their first drive all season, and they had gone 20 straight games without a touchdown on their opening drive, but Cincinnati finally had some early momentum and made it count.
The defense then forced a three-and-out, and Dalton and Mixon went right to work, setting up Bullock’s 34-yard yard field goal for a 10-7 lead with 14 seconds left in the first quarter. Mixon had 10 carries for 72 yards in the first quarter and crossed 100 yards for the eight time in his career in the third quarter. He totaled 136 yards for the game.
Both teams turned the ball over on downs in the second quarter. New England had a fourth-and-four pass sail over Mohamed Sanu’s finger tips the first drive of the period, and the Bengals lined up in a shot gun formation on fourth-and-inches and couldn’t get anywhere with Mixon attempting the run.
The Patriots tied the game at 10 on a 40-yard field goal from Folk with 3:51 left in the half and then recovered Erickson’s turnover at the Cincinnati 23-yard line to set up the final score before halftime. Folk made his 46-yard field goal 10 seconds left after Carlos Dunlap sacked Brady for a seven-yard loss on third down.
Cincinnati had success in the first half getting pressure on Brady, as the Bengals sacked him twice, but the Bengals’ struggles in their own passing game proved to be the difference. New England was leading the league in turnover differential going into Sunday at plus-19.
Dalton has now had four games with four interceptions during his nine-year career. He threw for 151 yards and one touchdown on Carter’s first career catch, and finished with a 39.2 rating.
Brady had just 128 yards passing but threw two touchdown passes to move into second place on the NFL’s all-time career touchdown pass list, leaping Drew Brees with 538. He is one behind Peyton Manning.
With the win, New England avoided its first three-game losing streak since 2002. The Bengals travel to Miami next week and finish up at home Dec. 29 against the Browns.