Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 27-13 win over the Browns, which saw Bill Belichick get career win No. 300 against the team that gave him his start as a head coach …
THE BROWNS DIDN’T BELIEVE
There’s always a fine line in football between a team playing to its strengths versus that same team being too predictable in its strategy. For instance, the prevailing wisdom prior to Sunday’s game was that the Browns’ best chance of challenging the Patriots was to pound the ball on the ground with the explosive Nick Chubb rather than entrust things to the league’s most-intercepted quarterback against a defense that’s hawking the ball at historic proportions.
So how did Cleveland start Sunday? With four short pass attempts. Then they turned the ball over on the next three plays.
And that, effectively, was the ball game.
Once the Browns settled in, they were competitive. Baker Mayfield connected on a dozen straight throws in one stretch. Nick Chubb finished with 131 rushing yards. Cleveland outscored New England over the final three quarters, 13-10.
However, none of that mattered in the result because the Browns began the game in a 17-0 hole. And given the way they dug that hole for themselves, it’s worth asking whether the dominance of the Patriots’ defense so far this season has crept into the heads of their opponents. And if that mental edge is becoming as much an advantage as the one established by the depth and level of the Pats’ physical talent.
That was clearly the case against the Jets, when Sam Darnold was “seeing ghosts,” and it appeared to be a factor again against the Browns. Cleveland was coming off its bye, so it had two weeks to prepare. Entering at 2-4, its coaches and players understood the desperation baked into their circumstances. Whether they scouted themselves or the Patriots in preparation, it would’ve been clear that the ground game was their best shot at beating their unbeaten hosts.
But instead they got cute by opening in the air. Then Chubb failed to protect the ball, which was wet to begin with, against a team that thrives on turnovers. And, almost ignoring that the second fumble came after a 44-yard carry, the Browns then tried an underhanded shovel pass that was thrown right into the face of New England lineman Lawrence Guy.
There’s no taking away from what the Patriots’ defense has accomplished. Dont’a Hightower’s touchdown was the defense’s fourth of the season. Guy’s pick gave them 25 takeaways through eight games. But this week showed some previously unseen cracks. The Browns ran the ball effectively, were the more efficient side for stretches, and managed to create some matchup problems. Cleveland challenged New England.
And it could have done so far more seriously had its coaching staff started the day more confident that the team was capable of doing so.
LET’S MAKE A DEAL
Mohamed Sanu wasn’t great in his Patriots debut, but he was good enough. His biggest play came in the second quarter, when he found a spot over the middle, got to the sticks, and held on through a lick to make a fourth-down-converting catch. His other grab on five targets was a fourth-quarter crosser that gained 19 yards.
There’s got to be more there if the Pats are to ultimately justify giving Atlanta a second-round pick for him, but it’s a start. And, hopefully, it’s also just a start for the Patriots’ efforts to improve themselves before the trade deadline.
The deadline is Tuesday at 4 p.m., and before then New England should be active in pursuit of improvements to the offense — and particularly the offensive line, given the ravaging that group has incurred as a result of injury.
Big-ticket right guard Shaq Mason missed Sunday’s game, joining left tackle Isaiah Wynn and center David Andrews as the starters who have been relegated to the sideline up front. There’s a chance Wynn could return from injured reserve, and Mason isn’t expected to be a long-term loss, but the ineffectiveness of the patchwork in front of Brady has begun to impact what the offense can do. And is as culpable as anything for the lack of consistency and clear strength that currently defines the attack.
Tom Brady was sacked three times Sunday, and was forced to throw away a handful of passes under pressure. That came on the heels of Monday night, when the Patriots prioritized getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly, as though doubting their ability to protect him on a traditional drop back. And then there’s the matter of a running game that averaged 2.9 yards per rush against the Browns, further asserting itself as one of football’s least-effective units.
This isn’t to say the Patriots should necessarily go out and throw a first-rounder toward the Redskins for holdout Trent Williams. But fortifying the offensive line could create the offensive balance and efficacy that at times has been painfully absent. It’s worth paying a price to try and fix it. It’s worth overpaying, even.
EDELMAN THE INVALUABLE
As his co-occupants in the receivers’ room come and go on what seems to be a regular basis, Julian Edelman just keeps delivering — with his consistent excellence as valuable now as ever, and on high-profile display during another big performance on Sunday evening.
Edelman scored twice against the Browns, with both of those touchdowns highlighting how good he remains at finding the vulnerabilities in a defense, keeping play alive, and re-routing in such a way that he remains available for his quarterback. It’s a combination of playmaking and predictability that is pivotal for an offense that’s still trying to figure out its pieces and its power.
On his first score, Edelman initially tried to cross from Brady’s left to right across the goal line, but found a linebacker in his path. Undeterred, Edelman staggered his stride, and adjusted with a banana cut back toward his quarterback. That gave him some space to make the catch, and it also gave him a running start for the surge he needed to get into the end zone.
His second score was similar, but this time the rush forced Brady out of his first look, then out of the pocket. Again going from left to right, Edelman worked his way into a gap in the coverage and the quarterback fired on the run.
Two and a half minutes after the Browns moved within one score, the Patriots’ lead ballooned back to 14. And an offense without an identity was again rescued by the impeccable on-the-fly recognition of its most reliable weapon.
THE RED ZONE IS AN ISSUE
The enormity of Edelman’s two scores was amplified by the Patriots’ problems in the red zone, which is a season-long concern that continued when they converted only two of their six trips inside the 20-yard line on Sunday.
Those two were the touchdown tosses to Edelman. Otherwise they were forced to settle for a 20-yard field goal after facing second and goal from the 2; a blocked field goal after a 13-play march stalled just inside the 15; a 29-yard field goal after a one-yard run and two incompletions came after the club got down to the 12; and a missed field goal after the Pats took over on downs at the Cleveland 14 and actually went a couple of yards backwards.
Take away the two passes to Edelman, and that’s six points on four series that advanced to within the foe’s 15. Overall, with that 2-for-6 New England dropped to an even 50 percent touchdown rate in the red zone for the season (18-for-36), and figures to drop from where they ranked at 19th in the NFL at the start of Week 8. If that rate survives through the second half, it’ll mark the Patriots’ worst red-zone percentage since 2003, when they scored touchdowns on 22 of 50 red-zone trips (44 percent). Yes, even the Matt Cassel-led offense of 2008 was better (52.8 percent).
Sunday, the trouble inside the 20 was multifaceted. They attempted six runs that netted nine yards. Brady was sacked once, losing seven yards. And Brady tried 10 passes, completing five for 10 yards. Take away the two scores to Edelman and he was 3-of-8 for 11 yards.
Those are ugly numbers — made even uglier when by missing a couple of the four easy kicks.
NOW THE FUN BEGINS
With the Bills’ loss on Sunday, every team in the AFC now has at least two losses — except for the Patriots, of course. Halfway through the campaign, the Pats are cruising to another AFC East title, and at this rate may not even need to sweat out the fight for one of the conference’s two first-round playoff byes.
But things change a bit next week. That’s when New England travels to Baltimore to take on one of those two-loss teams, and John Harbaugh’s Ravens don’t figure to come out of their own bye week looking as spooked and second-rate as the Browns did. They soared into their midseason siesta by going to Seattle and knocking off the Seahawks, and have historically been a squad that doesn’t back down to the challenge presented by Brady and Belichick.
Further, they possess the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense, which Chubb — and, before him, Frank Gore — may suggest is the best way to attack the Patriots. The Ravens are a group that won’t be afraid of inviting the Pats into a slugfest. Nor will they be fearful about taking shots and being aggressive. But typically they trust the system Harbaugh has built.
Ultimately, Sunday was about survival; getting a win and moving forward on a short week, against a talented team, amid tough conditions. But now it’s on to an intriguing matchup that promises to be as telling a test as the Patriots have faced. And a tilt that may tell us whether some of the cracks that are starting on the surface are truly worthy of being classified as concerns.