FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — B.J. Hill found an early Christmas gift at Gillette Stadium on Saturday.
It wasn’t wrapped up in a box.
It wasn’t under a Christmas tree.
It wasn’t hanging in a stocking.
Instead, the gift was on the cold turf near the five-yard line.
Hill did not hesitate to jump on the loose football to secure the Bengals’ 22-18 win, and extend the Cincinnati winning streak to seven games.
The win not only boosted the Bengals’ record to 11-4, but it also put the kibosh on a seven-game losing skid at New England.
The play was monumental.
The play won the Week 16 game.
The Patriots had whipped off 18 unanswered points in the second half, and were five yards away from taking the lead with under a minute to go in the game.
Things did not look promising for the Bengals.
Santa was about to leave a lump of coal for the frozen Who Dey fans who braved the elements and made it to Foxborough.
New England running back Rhamondre Stevenson was charging toward the goal line when Cincinnati defensive tackle D.J. Reader plugged the hole and stuffed the ballcarrier.
Bengals safety Vonn Bell darted into the play and got his hands, on the ball and stripped it loose from Stevenson.
That’s when Hill found his early Christmas gift on the turf.
“You just find the ball and get it,” Hill said. “Right place at the right time. I had the ball early (in the play) and was trying to get up, but people (were) on me. It was a big play by Vonn.”
The defensive unit again came up big for the second consecutive game.
Last week against Tampa Bay, the defensive team forced four consecutive turnovers which led to a 34-23 comeback win at Raymond James Stadium over the Buccaneers and Tom Brady.
“At the end of the day, that huge turnover by Vonn and B.J. really won us the game,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “It was a tough situation, and they had the ball down there around the five, and when those guys stepped up and made the play was critical.”
The defense made plays that it needed, especially when special teams struggled on Saturday.
Kicker Even McPherson left five points on the field, and missed two point-after-tries and a field goal attempt.
While unusual, it must be tough to kick a ball 40 yards when the temps are frigid.
It probably feels like kicking a brick.
“The defense came up big at the end,” Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said. “They forced a turnover to win us the game. They just continue to make plays like that, and we have to do a better job on offense.”
Different players on the defense have made plays when games are on the line.
Last week, Germaine Pratt made an acrobatic interception of Brady.
On Christmas Eve, Bell came through and stripped the ball from Stevenson.
“Great teams always find ways to win,” Bell said. “This was a cold, away game but we found a way to win.”
Burrow went off for 375 yards in the air in the win with three touchdowns and completed 40 of 52 passes.
But he did throw two interceptions, one of which was a pick six.
But he could not find the end zone in the second half, and needed the defense to produce.
Last week the unit forced four turnovers.
Saturday, it forced only one – but it came at a crucial time and won the game.
The next big test for the Bengals will be against Buffalo on Monday Night Football on Jan. 2 in Cincinnati.
Two weeks ago, the Bengals played a lackluster first half — and rallied to beat the Bucs in the second half.
On Saturday, Cincinnati looked amazing in the first two quarters, but they struggled in the last two stanzas.
If they can put together four consecutive quarters in the same game, they will be unstoppable.
My preseason predictions remain in effect.
I said Cincinnati would finish 12-5 and go back to the Super Bowl.
Right now, with two games to go, they are 11-4.
Could they go 13-4?
Who Dey knows?