With win over Bengals, Patriots buy themselves important time to fix some things

CINCINNATI -- The New England Patriots' 34-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday wasn’t the decisive blowout to quiet some of the growing doubts about their Super Bowl credentials. Nonetheless, their second-half recovery was critical as they improve to 11-3 on the season and buy more time to find what they can consistently do best going into the playoffs.

At halftime, things didn’t look rosy with a 13-10 lead, as all of New England had to be asking the question, “How could this team be struggling with the one-win Bengals?”

Then they found themselves, sparked by an offense that shows promise in spurts, a defense that recovered from a slow start against the run, and special-teams units that are playing a major role in dictating the outcome of games.

So, now, the big-picture question: Is this team built to beat red-hot Baltimore?

They’d be underdogs today, no doubt. Just like they were last year against Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game, which serves up a reminder that anything is still possible, even when the performance doesn't always look top-notch in mid-December.

Buy a breakout performance: Stephon Gilmore is proving that he’s the best cornerback in the game. Gilmore had an interception early in the third quarter, and then followed it up with a 64-yard interception return for a touchdown later in the quarter. He now has six interceptions on the season, and this type of game could even vault him into the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year consideration.

Eye-popping NextGen Stat: Gilmore reached a max speed of 19.86 miles per hour on his return, the fourth fastest by a ball-carrying Patriots player this season and fastest by any of their defensive ball carriers. The Patriots are the only team this season without a ball-carrier reaching 20 miles per hour.

Pivotal play: Special-teams captain Matthew Slater, a perennial Pro Bowler, was singled up as a gunner on a punt late in the second quarter. He timed his arrival at the same time returner Alex Erickson was catching the ball, and Erickson muffed it, with perennial Pro Bowler Justin Bethel recovering it in a pile. That stole the Patriots three points going into halftime, giving them a 13-10 lead they wouldn’t relinquish as they raced away in the third quarter.

Promising trend: The Patriots' offense badly needs a consistent spark, and rookie receiver N'Keal Harry helped provide it. This came after he played just two snaps in last week's loss to the Chiefs. But Harry was part of the primary three-receiver package against the Bengals, and his third-quarter touchdown catch was a play in which he kept himself alive along the back line of the end zone. Quarterback Tom Brady shuffled his feet, and showed great patience in the pocket to make it happen, as the play -- and overall day -- was a building block for the duo.

Biggest hole in the game plan: The Bengals successfully ran the ball on their first eight plays against the Patriots' nickel defense, and the fits and tackling were poor. The ninth play was a pass for a touchdown. The Patriots then switched to more of a run-based front/personnel, and things settled down. It was a critical in-game adjustment, with defensive lineman Adam Butler providing a spark as a third-down lineman added to the mix.