In September 2014, after a blowout loss at Kansas City, New England coach Bill Belichick repeatedly said to inquisitive reporters, “We’re on to Cincinnati.”
Belichick put the setback in the rearview mirror and refused to rehash it. The rest was history as the Patriots beat the Bengals and won 10 of their final 12 regular-season games before finishing as Super Bowl XLIX champions.
Eight years and three months later, after an embarrassing loss at Las Vegas, the Patriots are again on to Cincinnati. The Bengals are again road favorites. Will history repeat?
New England no longer has Tom Brady and the other elements of a title contender. The Patriots (7-7) are scrambling to make the playoffs now.
Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow resembles a young Brady in many ways and just beat the seven-time Super Bowl champ in Week 15. The Bengals trailed the Buccaneers 17-0 late in the second quarter before reeling off 34 consecutive points in a 34-23 win at Tampa Bay, where Brady gift-wrapped the comeback by committing four turnovers.
The Patriots figure to be fully focused with their postseason chances on the line following the fiasco in Las Vegas, where the Raiders trailed by seven in the final minute and rallied for a stunning 30-24 win as time expired. Mac Jones passed for only 112 yards and made a feeble tackle attempt on Chandler Jones’ 48-yard fumble return on the final play.
I had no plans to bet on New England this week, but my plans have changed after further review. One positive to take away the Patriots’ lost weekend in Vegas was their ability to move the ball on the ground. Rhamondre Stevenson had 172 of the team’s 206 rushing yards, and the offense should have some success against Cincinnati, which is missing defensive ends Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson because of injuries. The Bengals rank 30th in the NFL in sacks (22), with Hubbard and Hendrickson combining for 12.5, so the New England line has a better shot of giving Mac Jones more time to throw.
The matchup is decent for the Patriots, and so is the situational spot. Cincinnati (10-4) owns a victory over Kansas City and hosts Buffalo in Week 17, so home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs is still within the Bengals’ reach. At the same time, this could be a tricky spot for Cincinnati, a 3.5-point road favorite for the second straight week with a bigger game against the Bills on deck.
It’s easy to side with the Bengals, who are 11-1 ATS in their past 12 games after opening the season 0-2. Burrow is among the hottest quarterbacks in the league.
But betting the NFL often requires making tough decisions. Belichick is angry and returning home for a must-win game. According to handicapper Marc Lawrence, Belichick is 14-0 ATS as a non-division dog coming off a loss with the Patriots. This is not the typical New England team, so historical trends are not as relevant, but there are some things to like about this home dog.
Pick: Patriots +3.5
Four more plays for Week 16:
Saints (+3) over BROWNS: Believe it or not, Cleveland will be hit by bad weather in December. Winds in the 30-mph range will probably turn this into a ground-oriented battle of field position, and there’s more value in taking the points when the total is 32.5. Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has been weak in good weather, completing 61% of his passes with 6.2 yards per attempt (worse than Jacoby Brissett’s 7.1). Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill will help New Orleans move the ball on the ground.
Eagles (+5.5) over COWBOYS: It seems unlikely that Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts will play with a sprained right shoulder. The Eagles (13-1) need one win in their final three games to lock up the top seed in the NFC, so they can afford to rest Hurts. When the Hurts injury news broke Monday, the Cowboys moved from -1.5 to -6. The value of the starting quarterback is always related to the quality of the backup, and Philadelphia’s fate seems to be in decent hands with Gardner Minshew, who has 22 career starts. There’s no need for Minshew to be the hero because the offensive line is elite, and he’s surrounded by skilled playmakers.
Dallas (10-4) also has concerns with its quarterback. Dak Prescott hasn’t been sharp, throwing 11 interceptions in nine games. The Cowboys have been dominant on defense at times and rank first in takeaways (26), second against the pass (191.6 yards per game) and second in sacks (49). However, the defense broke down last weekend and allowed Jacksonville to pile up 503 total yards, including 192 yards and 7.1 per carry on the ground. The Philadelphia defense ranks No. 1 in sacks (55) and interceptions (15). All things considered, the line adjustment seems to be an overreaction.
Packers (+4) over DOLPHINS: Green Bay (6-8) has won back-to-back games to keep its playoff hopes on thin ice. Miami (8-6) has lost three in a row, yet its offensive performance (7.1 yards per play) in a 32-29 loss at Buffalo was a reason for optimism. While the Packers have the horses to run the ball successfully against a struggling Dolphins defense, they need much better play from Aaron Rodgers to win or cover on the road. Rodgers has not had a 300-yard passing game all season, but the time seems right for him to rise to the occasion.
COLTS (+5) over Chargers: Instead of firing interim coach Jeff Saturday, Indianapolis is changing its quarterback. The Colts’ game of musical chairs is bumping Matt Ryan and making room for new starter Nick Foles. It’s tough to say if Foles will make a difference, but this is an ugly dog nobody wants to bet on, so I’ll take it. Usually fade material as favorites, the Chargers (8-6) have won only once by more than six points this season.
Last week: 3-2 against the spread