By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Since being eligible to come off injured reserve, rookie N'Keal Harry's ridden some serious ups and downs during what has been a seesaw seven weeks.
He was inactive in Baltimore in his first eligible game. He caught three passes for 18 yards in his debut, then caught an impressive touchdown vs. Dallas a week later. Then in Houston, he ran a bad route that resulted in a costly interception. The following week vs. Kansas City, he took just two snaps ... but scored a touchdown that didn't count due to a blown call.
Suffice it to say, with the Patriots entering Sunday's game with a banged-up Julian Edelman, it was very much anybody's guess as to whether or not Harry would be a big-time contributor to a victory.
And while the stats may not fully show it, Harry did indeed take another step forward.
It first showed up on the fifth play of the game, when Harry took a handoff on a jet sweep and got around the edge on the left side for a gain of 10 yards. Earlier in the week, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said that he needed to do a better job of getting the ball into Harry's hands, and the early return was positive when the play call involved the literal placement of the ball into Harry's hands.
Harry showed the speed to get around the edge and the strength to stiff-arm linebacker Germaine Pratt to the turf en route to picking up 10 yards.
Harry next showed up on a play that didn't technically count. Nevertheless, his ability to lay out and haul in what would have been a huge gain will certainly go into the mental bank of McDaniels and Tom Brady going forward.
Clearly, Brady liked what he saw, because on the third-and-8 that immediately followed that non-play, Brady threw to Harry, who had run his route to the line to gain and hauled in a catch to move the chains. Two plays after that catch, Harry took another handoff, this time gaining 12 yards on a second-and-9 to pick up his third first down of the game. On this one, Harry showed some patience and field vision as he found his blocks and navigated his way up the field.
All of that set the table for Harry's most important snap of the game, which came in the third quarter. The Patriots led 13-10 but faced a third-and-goal from the Bengals' 7-yard line. Converting third downs has been an issue for the Patriots all year. Converting in the red zone and in goal-to-go situations has been a major issue all year. The offense has desperately needed someone to emerge as a big-bodied, sure-handed target to help finish drives with touchdowns instead of field goals.
There's not enough evidence to declare Harry to be that answer. But there's now some evidence to say he might be.
On this play, Harry broke to the back corner of the end zone. Brady was not pressured and bounced around in the pocket, so Harry had the presence of mind to fight through some contact and make his way back toward the middle of the field, across the back line of the end zone. Brady saw Harry and squeezed a pass through a tight window, and Harry secured the catch while falling to the turf.
The play required a high-difficulty catch, and it required some sense of going where Brady would want him to go on a broken play. Everything went right on this particular play, leading to the touchdown that officially began the push for the game to enter blowout territory.
"Yeah he's fighting," Brady said of his rookie receiver. "He's working hard every week to learn. And he's a very hard-working guy, so it's fun to see him make those plays."
Harry later made a play that, again, didn't count (that's becoming a theme with Harry lately) but will nevertheless show up on film when the coaching staff breaks down this game. It came on a Bengals return of a Mohamed Sanu fumble, and it involved Harry chasing down B.W. Webb from behind and making a tackle.
Harry later picked up an offensive pass interference penalty that could be described as iffy at best.
The stat line showed just two catches for 15 yards and the touchdown, plus two runs for 22 yards, so Harry didn't win a fantasy matchup for anybody on Sunday. But he did take a step forward in what has been an inconsistent start to his career, at a time when the Patriots badly needed it.
"It was good just getting out there, just starting to get my groove back. So it felt good," Harry said.
When asked about coming back after playing a game where he took just two snaps, Harry said he tries to take the same approach no matter the circumstance.
"I take the same approach every day," Harry said. "I really take pride in being a hard worker and being a workhorse, so I just take that approach, and, you know, just seize the day."
Harry surely did that on Sunday. The trick now will be seizing next Saturday, and then the following Sunday, and then another couple of days in January, in order to completely change the story of his rookie year and the Patriots' season on the whole.
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