Stephon Gilmore propels the Patriots to win over Bengals and playoff spot

Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and the New England Patriots came up big on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, helping the Pats clinch a playoff spot.

The New England Patriots have clinched a spot in the playoffs for the 11th consecutive season – which extends their own NFL record even further – thanks to a 34-13 win on Sunday over the Cincinnati Bengals.

It wasn’t pretty to start things off for the defending champs. Though Tom Brady and James White connected early-on with a 23-yard score, the Bengals battled back to take a 10-7 lead at the end of the first quarter. New England’s defense – the strength of the team all season – was uncharacteristically porous against the run for most of the first half, ceding big gains to Bengals tailback Joe Mixon.

Mixon finished his day with 25 rushes for 136 yards. Outside of his production, though, the Patriots defense had a lot to be proud of today.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was picked off on four separate occasions throughout this contest – twice by Stephon Gilmore and twice by J.C. Jackson. One of Gilmore’s interceptions went for 64 yards and a touchdown.

The Patriots offense also finally got some traction on the day… though it didn’t come from Julian Edelman. The veteran receiver seemed noticeably bothered by his injuries, and ended up a game-time decision for the Pats. Even though he was active and ended up playing, he made minimal impact on the outcome of the contest, catching just two of five targets for nine yards.

Instead, it was N’Keal Harry – the rookie first-round draft pick – who made a couple big catches and got his second career NFL touchdown on a seven-yard pass from Brady in the third quarter. Tight end Matt LaCosse also found himself more heavily featured in the passing game today as well.

New England halfback Sony Michel had 19 rushes for 89 yards on the ground, as well as a reception for 14 yards.

With the two touchdown passes (one to White and one to Harry), Brady moved within one touchdown pass of Peyton Manning’s career mark of 539. Brady now rests at 538 with Drew Brees right behind him at 537. Brees and the Saints play on Monday Night Football against the Colts.

Patriots fans will want to root for the Indianapolis defense to shut down Brees as best they can, or at least force New Orleans to score their points through field goals and rushing touchdowns. If Brees ties Manning’s mark at 539 with two touchdown passes, it’s not as big of a deal – but if he breaks the record with three passes, it will take some of the magic and excitement away from Brady potentially doing the same thing next week against the Buffalo Bills at home.

Brady needs one more touchdown to tie Manning and two more touchdowns to set the new career record for passing touchdowns.

Patriots kicker Nick Folk was perfect today against the Bengals, completing all four of his extra point attempts and two field goals – including one from 46 yards.

Thanks to New England’s victory against the Bengals, the Patriots are assured of at least the No. 5 seed at worst in the AFC playoffs. The Patriots can clinch the AFC East with a win at home against the Bills on Saturday, which would guarantee them at least the No. 4 seed and one home playoff date at Gillette Stadium.

New England is still technically in the running for the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the postseason as well, but they need Baltimore to drop their final two games against Cleveland and Pittsburgh, which is unlikely to occur. More realistically, the Patriots can retain the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a first-round bye if they win out against the Bills and then the Dolphins in Week 17.

New England is home for both games. They finish their regular season with an impressive 6-2 away record.