Craig James rushed for a career-high 142 yards including an 11-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown as the New England Patriots secured a National Football League playoff berth with a 34-23 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals today.
The Patriots (11-5), who won nine of their last 11 games, earned a wild-card spot and tied a club record for victories in a season.
Cincinnati, eliminated from contention for the playoffs when Pittsburgh lost to the New York Giants Saturday, finished 7-9.
New England, 0-3 in NFL playoff games, will meet the New York Jets Saturday at 4 p.m. at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in the American Football Conference wild-card game. The winner will play the AFC West champion Los Angeles Raiders.
After James' touchdown put New England ahead by 27-16 with 8:13 left in the game, Cincinnati's Boomer Esiason threw his second touchdown pass, an eight-yarder to Cris Collinsworth, with 5:43 to go.
But New England, which never trailed, came right back to score on Robert Weathers' 42-yard run on fourth and one with 1:52 remaining, ending a 75-yard, seven-play drive.
Coach Raymond Berry said it was the right play at the right moment. "It was an off-tackle play and it looked like Robert hit a crease someplace," he said. "That play goes against our tendencies and that's what we had it for. We've been getting that play ready for about six weeks."
The Patriots have scored at least twice in the fourth quarter of each of their last 10 games.
The Patriots appeared in control with a 20-6 halftime lead, but Esiason threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Eddie Brown (five catches, 129 yards) on the fifth play of the third quarter and Jim Breech kicked his third field goal of the game, a 30-yarder with 11:17 left in the game, to make the score 20-16.
Tony Eason, who had thrown a 50-yard touchdown pass to Stanley Morgan in the first quarter, hit Morgan for a 48-yard completion on the second play after the kickoff to bring the ball to the Cincinnati 17-yard line.
James, the AFC's third-ranked rusher coming into the game, ran twice for six yards, then took a lateral from Eason, cut up the right side and barely stayed inbounds as he went for the touchdown.
He finished the regular season with 1,227 yards, the second-highest total by a Patriots runner.