Patriots vs. Bengals Instant Overreactions: N'Keal Harry takes positive step in win

Patriots vs. Bengals Instant Overreactions: N'Keal Harry takes positive step in win

The New England Patriots played poorly in the first half Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, but like so many times this season, the defense stepped up and made the key plays to secure a victory.

The Patriots forced five turnovers, including four interceptions, and earned a 34-13 Week 15 win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium to maintain their position as the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff picture. New England also clinched a playoff berth with their 11th win of the season.

The Bengals led 10-7 at one point in the second quarter, but the Patriots went on a 27-3 scoring run to blow the game open in the second half. New England's offense struggled again, but there were encouraging developments in both the passing and rushing attacks that the team can build on over the final two weeks of the regular season.

Let's take a look at four instant overreactions from the Patriots' win and assess their merit.

1. N'Keal Harry will play a crucial role for rest of 2019 
: Not an overreaction

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels talked earlier in the week about finding ways to get the ball to Harry more often, and the Patriots did a pretty good job of that Sunday. The rookie wide receiver tallied two receptions for 15 yards, including a third-quarter touchdown the Patriots desperately needed. Harry also ran the ball twice for 22 yards.

Harry should've had three receptions, but a great diving catch he made deep downfield was nullified due to a false start penalty by Julian Edelman.

The Patriots made Harry a larger part of the offense against the Bengals and the result were positive. He has the size, strength and raw skill to make big plays, and that was very evident on his touchdown reception. Harry received only two snaps last week versus the Chiefs, and after Sunday's performance, he should be a focal point of the offense for the remainder of the season. It's not like the Patriots have a bunch of other options, so they might as well give the rookie a shot.

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2. Pats' run defense is a concern
: Not an overreaction

The Bengals ran for 67 yards on eight carries during their first drive of the game, and it led to Cincinnati scoring its first opening-drive touchdown of the entire season. Bengals running back Joe Mixon had five carries for 43 yards by himself on that opening possession. Cincy finished with 164 rushing yards on 31 attempts (5.1 yards per carry), and Mixon accumulated 136 of those yards.

The Patriots run defense got off to a great start in 2019 and still ranks high in several statistical categories, but the unit has been less effective in recent weeks. New England gave up 159 rushing yards to the Cleveland Browns in Week 8, 210 yards to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9, and 109 yards to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 12.

A failure to stop the run allows teams to dominate time of possession and keep the Patriots offense off the field for long stretches, which is far from ideal for a New England team that's struggling to score (averaging 20.3 points scored over the last six games) and needs all the possessions it can get. The Ravens executed this strategy to perfection against the Patriots last month.

3. Stephon Gilmore is the best defensive player in the NFL this season
: Not an overreaction

Gilmore intercepted two passes in the third quarter Sunday, and he returned one of them for a touchdown that increased New England's lead to 27-10. He also tallied two tackles and four pass breakups.

Gilmore already was the league's best cornerback before this game, and he further strengthened his case for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award with this performance. He now leads the league with six interceptions (including two pick-6s), and the list of top-tier wide receivers he's shut down this season also is quite impressive. Gilmore's spectacular play has been the main reason why the Patriots lead the league in several important passing stats such as interceptions, opposing QB rating, yards allowed per attempt, completion percentage, while also ranking No. 2 in passing yards allowed per game.

A Patriots player has never won the Associated Press' NFL DPoY award, but Gilmore deserves to be the first one as the MVP of an elite New England defense.

4. Joe Burrow will save the Bengals
: Overreaction

No one player is going to save this inept Bengals franchise, not even LSU quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow. The Tigers quarterback is having a tremendous season with 4,715 passing yards, 48 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He's even drawn comparisons to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

Cincinnati needs a lot more than a franchise quarterback to return to the playoffs, though. The Bengals' receiving corps is unimpressive, and the team's best wideout, A.J. Green, could leave as a free agent in March. The defense is giving up more than 25 points per game, and the coaching staff leaves a lot to be desired as well. Earning the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and selecting Burrow would be a great first step for the Bengals, but they have plenty more roster issues to address before being a contender again in the AFC.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Youth - that means draft success - will have to fuel Pats' reboot

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Patriots Talk Podcast: Youth - that means draft success - will have to fuel Pats' reboot

It's simple, really. If the Patriots are going to avoid staying home again after the Wild Card Round of the playoffs next season and seasons to come, they've got to get younger.

And to get younger, they've got to be more successful in the draft.

In the latest edition of Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast, Curran and Phil Perry focus on the last time New England was sent home this early in the playoffs a decade ago and if there can be lessons learned from that roster reboot in 2010. 

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The biggest issue confronting the Pats this time around is their age, which averages 31.6 years old (a 42-year-old quarterback skews that a little, of course). By comparison, the Super Bowl 54 opponents, the Kansas City Chiefs (26.8) and the San Francisco 49ers (26.6) are considerably younger.

Click here to listen and subscribe to Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast: 

The age factor is why, as Perry pointed out, "the pressure is on for them to hit not only in this 2020 draft, where they do have 12 picks, they have no second-round pick, but 12 shots at the dartboard. Last year, they had 10 [picks] and nine guys are still with the team.

"It's clear they have told themselves, 'We need to get younger. We need to start hitting here if we want to sustain this success.' The draft is the lifeblood of any team."

The 2018 team and its victory in the Super Bowl over the Rams last February worked to hide some of those flaws from recent low-yield draft classes.

"They had a great quarterback when they needed him. They had a Hall of Fame quarterback when they needed him. The defense looked tremendous we know how that story played out," Perry said. 

What kind of draft yield are we talking about to fuel the next generation of Patriots' success?

Curran goes on to rattle off the names from 2008-2012 drafts (Mayo, Slater, Edelman, Vollmer, Butler, Chung, Gronkowski, McCourty) that fueled the second half of the Pats dynasty.

"I have upwards of 30 names from 2008 to 2012 who were contributing players to the Patriots. I'm not even talking a little contributing, but massive contributing...," Curran said.  

There's also a discussion of how the uncertainty surrounding Tom Brady will impact the 2020 draft strategy. Listen and subscribe to Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston podcast network.


That 617 Life Podcast: Patriots' ties to a Pats-less Super Bowl

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That 617 Life Podcast: Patriots' ties to a Pats-less Super Bowl

The Patriots may have been missing from the NFL's Championship Sunday, but that didn't stop them from being mentioned and having their former personnel play prominent roles in the AFC and NFC Championship Games.

Whether it was former Pats linebacker Mike Vrabel coaching the Tennessee Titans against the Kansas City Chiefs or former New England quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo helping the San Francisco 49ers beat the Green Bay Packers to reach Super Bowl 54, the Patriots continue to be a talked-about team. 

On the latest edition of the "That 617 Life" podcast, Leroy Irvin, Shanda Foster and Cerrone Battle discussed how the Pats still loomed over the games on Sunday.

"You can not say anything bad about the Patriots because we are always constantly producing talent," Foster said. "I think this is the perfect testament to Bill Belichick."

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Battle said it speaks to the dominance of the Patriots the past two decades that connections to their former players and staff are now all over the league.

"That's what happens when you win," Battle said. "When you win, everybody wants a piece. They want your waterboy. Look at the new head coach of the Giants [Joe Judge, the former Patriots special teams and receivers coach]?... When you're good for 20 years eventually you're going to have your roots all over the league. After years and years of success, I'm not shocked by it."

Irvin and Foster said instead of lamenting a rare NFL Final Four without New England, Pats fans should be grateful.

"I wish Patriot Nation would grow up," Irvin said. "By that I mean I'm tired of seeing on social media people just crying and complaining, 'Oh it's boring without the Patriots.' We've had almost two decades of excellence. We're not there. Get over it."

Said Foster, "I was grateful more than anything. Filled with gratitude. We may never see a run like this again."

In his "Hot Takes and Cold Cuts" segment, Battle says those crowning the Super Bowl 54 opponents as the next dynasties might want to pump the brakes a little. 

"First thing I heard [after the games] is, 'Kansas City they're gonna be around for years and San Francisco they're gonna be around for a long time. They're gonna be contenders forever,' " Battle said. "That was the story all day. 'What is anybody gonna do about these teams next year?' What are they gonna do next year? Not even worry about them. Why? Because this is the Not For Long League. The NFL. Every year, the teams that were hot the year before are never guaranteed to be hot the year after that. Unless you're the Patriots."

The crew also gives their reactions to the new Aaron Hernandez Netflix documentary. It's all in this week's "That 617 Life" podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast network. Click here to listen and subscribe.