Craig James rushed for a career-high 142 yards in 25 carries and tiptoed down the sideline for an 11-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown as the New England Patriots defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 34-23, Sunday and earned a playoff berth.
The Patriots (11-5) will face the New York Jets (11-5) next Saturday at 1 p.m., PST, at East Rutherford, N.J., in the AFC wild-card game. It originally was scheduled for next Sunday, but moved to Saturday because the New York Giants will play host to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC wild-card game on Sunday.
Cincinnati, which was eliminated from playoff contention when Pittsburgh lost to the Giants, 28-10, Saturday, finished at 7-9.
After James' touchdown put New England ahead, 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 and it was 27-23.
But New England, which never trailed, marched right back and scored on seldom-used Robert Weathers' 42-yard burst off tackle on a fourth-and-one with 1:52 remaining.
It was Weathers' first touchdown and his 41st rush of the season. He had three carries for 52 yards Sunday.
New England Coach Raymond Berry said: "We've never run that play this year. We've been getting it ready for six weeks."
Cincinnati Coach Sam Wyche said the Bengals expected a sneak. "It was a good call by them," he said.
Weathers, a fourth-year player from Arizona State, said: "The thought occurred to me on the bench that I would sure like to run that play. I got the ball and it was almost automatic."
James, who was Eric Dickerson's running mate at SMU, finished the season with 1,227 yards, second-best in Patriot history. Jim Nance had 1,458 yards in 1966.
Berry became the Patriots' head coach after eight games in 1984, replacing Ron Meyer. Now he's made the playoffs in his first full season as an NFL head coach.
"I've always expected it to happen," he said. "The other thing is that it's absolutely incredible that it has."
The Patriots led at halftime, 20-6, but the Bengals came back to make it 20-16 as Esiason threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Eddie Brown 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 to play.
But two plays after the ensuing kickoff, the Patriots' Tony Eason, who had teamed with Stanley Morgan on a 50-yard touchdown pass play in the first quarter, hooked up with Morgan for a 48-yard gain that gave the Patriots the ball at the 17. Three plays later, James scored on his 11-yard run.
After the game, part of a goalpost being carted off by celebrating fans hit a power line outside Sullivan Stadium, injuring five men, four seriously, state police said. The injured were all taken to a nearby hospital, where four were listed in serious condition with electrical burns. A fifth fan was treated for shock.