CINCINNATI — When the Patriots were facing a third-and-goal situation at the Bengals' seven-yard line early in the third quarter, it felt familiar.
Time and again in 2019, those four-point plays have gone against the Patriots. Time and again, they've settled for field goals. Those plays are part of the reason the Patriots came into the game ranked 27th in the NFL in red-zone offense.
But this one turned out differently, thanks to a rookie and the trust he's started to gain from his 42-year-old quarterback. N'Keal Harry's touchdown catch, the second of his young career, gave the Patriots a 20-10 lead and serves as this week's Turning Point.
The Patriots had just thrown back-to-back incompletions. One came on an inaccurate roll-out pass from Tom Brady to Sony Michel that was targeted at Michel's knees. Another came when Brady's attempted quick-hitter to Mohamed Sanu was batted down at the line of scrimmage.
Harry had a corner route on third down that Brady looked to immediately off the snap on third down. It looked like Harry had a step on his defender. And even if he didn't, his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame and above-average body control makes him an intriguing target in contested situations; it's part of the reason they drafted him in the first round back in the spring. Still, Brady didn't pull the trigger.
The result was a scramble-drill situation. Patriots receivers have rules in those scenarios. Brady knows what to expect. But when a play goes from scripted to unscripted in a split-second, there's an inherent challenge for everyone involved to be on the same page timing-wise and assignment-wise.
Harry has looked hesitant on scramble drills earlier this season, but he passed the test this week. Digging out from the back corner of the end zone, he raced along the back end line of the end zone. Brady stepped up to avoid pressure — something he'd seen throughout the game to that point — and ripped a pass to the rookie. Harry dove and held on for the score.
It was one of several athletic plays the first-rounder out of Arizona State submitted in the game. He carried twice on end-around runs for 22 yards. He also made an eye-opening leaping grab on the first play of the second quarter that was wiped out because of a Julian Edelman false start.
Josh McDaniels said earlier in the week that he wanted Harry to see the ball more often in open space. He saw it in a variety of situations, and his playing time skyrocketed after seeing just two snaps — one of which should've resulted in a catch-and-run score but was ruled short by officials — against the Chiefs in Week 14. Harry started the game and played in 25 plays by halftime.
It wasn't all perfect. Harry was flagged for an offensive pass interference call late in the fourth quarter.
But his touchdown got things rolling for the Patriots. It was followed by a pick-six from Stephon Gilmore, giving the visitors a 27-13 lead that just about put the game out of reach for a lowly Bengals offense. Harry's score also gave the Patriots a play that they're surely hoping will serve as a turning point of sorts for their red-zone offense.