When a Patriots’ blowout road win doesn’t really feel like one…

Andy Hart
December 15, 2019 - 6:47 pm

A 34-13 win on the road in the NFL in mid-December should be a thing of good holiday cheer!

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Advancing to 11-3 on the season and clinching a playoff berth should be reason for festive football feelings for all our Patriot Nation neighbors across New England!

But, alas, the expectations for Bill Belichick’s defending-champions are far greater than those of any other team in the league, maybe in all of sports.

Beating a one-win Bengals’ squad that turned the ball over five times isn’t exactly a precursor to postseason domination on the heels of a two-game losing streak to open the final month.

What did we learn in New England’s win at Paul Brown Stadium?

In a word, nothing.

In so many ways, this December victory felt very much like so many that Tom Brady’s team put forth in September and October in its perfect 8-0 start to the year.

A defense that has proven itself capable of creating turnovers and even scoring points – especially against bad quarterbacks -- did just that in Cincy, Stephon Gilmore returning one of the Patriots’ four interceptions of Andy Dalton 64-yards for a touchdown.

Was it Dalton or was that Sam Darnold? Or Luke Falk?

An offense that’s struggled to give Brady time to find receivers struggling themselves to get open pretty much played to its scouting report against a Bengals’ defense that’s ranked 31st in the NFL in terms of yards and 23rd in points allowed.

Despite Belichick’s contention all week and straight through Sunday night that the Bengals are better than their record, they are not. They are a bad team that makes bad mistakes and loses games.

Belichick himself often says that before you can win in the NFL you have to avoid losing. The Bengals haven’t quite gotten the hang of that under first-year, baby-faced coach Zac Taylor.

The Patriots, on the other hand, have mastered the art.

They rarely give up big plays on defense.

On offense, as coordinator Josh McDaniels noted last week, their strength is avoiding sacks and not turning the ball over.

It’s a couple steps ahead of hitting foul balls, so to speak, but not exactly worthy of t-shirts and a slogan.

Brady still doesn’t look comfortable in the pocket, coming off his fifth straight game completing less than 60 percent of his passes, his sixth straight with a passer rating below 90.

Julian Edelman still looks as banged up as he clearly is, gutting through another day when he probably should have been on the inactive list rather than in the starting lineup.

Mohamed Sanu continues to appear anything but an igniting force in the passing game, dropping fourth down passes and catching just two of eight balls thrown his way this time out.

The line apparently never will fall into being a cohesive unit, even if it did find a way to lead the way for a season-high 175 yards rushing against the NFL’s absolute worst run defense.

And a run defense with occasional issues with tackling was again the sneaky weakness in the otherwise impressive overall unit, one that has Gilmore continuing to carry it to elite status.

That’s all the bad news.

The good news is that the defense and special teams are what they are. They produce turnovers, produce short fields and produce points – both directly and indirectly. They did it in September. They did it again on Sunday in Cincinnati.

How did Brady describe the big win? Taking care of business against a 1-13 Bengals team that likely will be in position to draft newly-minted LSU Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow next April?

“It was a great effort by everybody,” Brady said.

That’s true. The Patriots are beyond questioning their effort at this point. They are a try-hard team that will beat up the bad teams it faces, like the Bengals. It will fight back against the good teams, much like last Sunday’s moral victory comeback against the Chiefs.

Maybe one question was answered in Cincinnati. The Patriots aren’t worse than we thought they were. They still win the games they very much should against very much overmatched opponents.

But given the issues against playoff caliber teams – losses to the division-leading Ravens, Texans and Chiefs as well as one-score, dogfight wins over the likes of the Bills, Eagles and Cowboys – we still don’t know if New England is better than its pessimistic critics – this writer included -- believe.

Are the Patriots a quality playoff team preparing for a Super Bowl run?

We’ll all find out in about month.

Because we certainly didn’t get any closer to answering that question Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati in a blowout win over the Bengals that just didn’t feel too festive.

Related: Patriots at Bengals thumbs up, thumbs down: Stephon Gilmore scores the win!