FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — With the game on the line, the Bengals defensive unit stood strong — and forced a New England turnover near the goal line to preserve a Cincinnati 22-18 win at Gillette Stadium on Saturday.
Cincinnati’s defensive lineman D.J. Reader stuffed and stood up Patriots’ running back Rhamondre Stevenson at the five-yard line, and safety Vonn Bell stripped the ball loose.
Bengals defensive tackle B.J. Hill pounced on the pigskin with 59 seconds left, giving the ball back to quarterback Joe Burrow and the offense to secure the win on the road.
“You just find the ball and get it,” Hill said after the game. “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 stand stopped a potential final game-winning drive by New England, which rallied from a 22-point deficit in the second half and scored 18 unanswered points.
“Great teams always find ways to win,” Bell said. “This was a cold, away game but we found a way to win.”
The victory puts playoff-bound Cincinnati at 11-4, and keeps it in first place in the AFC North.
“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.”
Saturday’s victory extended the Bengals’ winning streak to seven games in a row, and ended a seven-game losing skid to the Patriots in New England.
“The defense came up big at the end,” 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.”
Burrow finished the game with 375 yards passing and completed 40 of 52 attempts with three touchdowns and two interceptions – one of which was a 69-yard pick six by New England’s Marcus Jones in the third quarter.
“We have to be able to put teams away in the end,” Burrow added. “But I’m never going to apologize for a win.”
The Bengals took the opening drive 78 yards in five plays that featured a nine-yard TD strike to Tee Higgins with 12:24 to go in the first quarter.
Higgins had eight grabs for 128 yards and a touchdown.
On the next Cincinnati drive, Burrow found wide receiver Trenton Irwin across the middle in the end zone for a 23-yard TD strike.
Irwin had three catches for 45 yards and two scores.
“He’s been stepping up big,” Burrow added about Irwin. “I’m so happy for him. He continues to make big-time catches and does exactly what he’s supposed to do. I hope he’s here for a long time.”
Irwin’s touchdown gave the Bengals a 12-0 lead with 5:16 left in the first quarter.
Kicker Evan McPherson missed two point-after-tries and one field-goal attempt in the game.
He did connect on a 28-yard field goal early in the second quarter for the 15-0 lead.
With 14 seconds left in the half, Burrow again found Irwin on a four-yard TD toss — capping off a 12-play, 80-yard drive for the 22-0 advantage.
New England rallied in the second half and put up 18 points, threatening to win the game until Reader, Bell and Hill teamed up for the defensive stop at the Cincinnati five-yard line.
“We just gutted it out,” Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson said. “Stepping up in those situations is something we take a lot of pride in. Being in those situations – you just can’t predict. Just proud of the way we responded.”
Hendrickson returned to action and played with a broken wrist, while offensive lineman La’el Collins left the game with a dislocated knee cap.
“Any win in this league in December is something,” Burrow added. “We need to get home, watch the films, make adjustments and get ready for Monday night.”
Cincinnati will host the Buffalo Bills (12-3) on Monday Night Football on Jan. 2 at Paycor Stadium.