They clinched a berth Sunday for the third time in four years, beating the team he left after seven seasons in which he feuded with management.
“First time in eight years? I’ll take that,” Dillon said after running for 88 yards and a touchdown in New England’s 35-28 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. “But I didn’t get there by myself.”
He had plenty of help from two-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, who threw two touchdown passes, and a defense that forced two turnovers inside the Patriots 20-yard line and a third that was returned for a touchdown that made it 21-7.
New England (12-1) locked up the AFC East title when Pittsburgh beat the New York Jets.
“We are excited about that,” safety Rodney Harrison said. “We will enjoy this victory for a day or two.”
By that time, Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis will have been introduced as head coach of Notre Dame, replacing the fired Tyrone Willingham. Weis flew to South Bend, Ind., after the game and agreed to a six-year deal to coach the Fighting Irish. A news conference is scheduled for Monday.
The Patriots would do well to listen closely to their defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel. They let the Bengals (6-7) back in the game when Jon Kitna’s 27-yard pass to Kelley Washington made it 35-28 with 3:50 left. But Brady, coming off two mediocre performances, and his offense ran out the clock.
The Patriots got their 27th win in 28 games, including last season’s Super Bowl. Dillon wasn’t around for that. He already had played his last game for Cincinnati.
“I approached it like I approached every other game,” Dillon said of Sunday’s win. “I’m pretty sure everybody’s sitting here waiting for me to say something wild and negative about Cincinnati. It’s not going to happen. I respect those guys.”
Carson Palmer threw two touchdown passes for the Bengals before leaving in the third quarter with a sprained knee.
“I felt a little pop,” said Palmer, who used crutches after the game. “I should be OK to play.”
The Bengals were hurt by three turnovers: a fumble recovery by Willie McGinest at the New England 16-yard line on the game’s first series; a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown by Asante Samuel that made it 21-7; and an interception in the end zone by Troy Brown early in the fourth quarter that Brown, normally a wide receiver, returned to only his 3-yard line.
“I should have caught it and gone down, but my offensive mentality took over,” Brown said. “When you get the ball in your hands, run with it.”
Still, the Patriots beat a team that scored 85 points in its previous two games and had won four of its last five. New England has 77 in its last two.
“We’ve lost games because we’ve made key mistakes,” Washington said. “We’ve moved the ball. We have the talent. But we’re not mature enough yet.”
Brady completed 18 of 26 passes for 260 yards and even connected with Patrick Pass for a 7-yard gain while sitting on the ground after he tripped.
“Tomorrow it’ll be like, `Hey, good play, don’t ever do that again,’ “ Brady said.
The Patriots scored first for the 18th straight regular-season game, an NFL record, on Dillon’s 1-yard run on their first series. That streak was in jeopardy until McGinest recovered Rudi Johnson’s fumble.
The Bengals tied it on Palmer’s 2-yard scoring pass to Matt Schobel, ending an 11-play drive. But the Patriots scored twice over the next six plays on Brady’s 48-yard pass to David Patten and Samuel’s interception.
Palmer’s 5-yard pass to Chad Johnson on Cincinnati’s next series made it 21-14.
Then Brady marched the Patriots to Kevin Faulk’s 4-yard touchdown run for a 28-14 lead.
“He’s smart, but more than that, he’s very patient,” Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons said. “He’s very mature.”
Brady was at his best on the opening series of the second half. He completed six of seven passes for 65 yards, capped by a 17-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Christian Fauria.
The Bengals cut the lead to 35-21 on Kyle Larson’s 11-yard touchdown run off a fake field goal and nearly drew within a touchdown as Kitna led them to the Patriots 10. But on third down, his pass was intercepted by Brown. ^Notes: Cincinnati’s T.J. Houshmanzadeh had 12 catches, breaking his career high of 10 set a week earlier. … The touchdowns by Patten and Samuel came 11 seconds apart, the shortest span in which the Patriots have scored two touchdowns since 1980. … Palmer has nine touchdown passes in his last three games.