Finally, the New England Patriots are at least in the conversation and, in some cases, the top team in the NFL. But is this the game where they slip up? After a 28-18 win over the Vikings last week, New England heads into the Dawg Pound to take on the 2-5 Cleveland Browns. With Logan Mankins back in camp and the whole Moss saga behind them, Tom Brady is now armed with weapons similar to his 2001 team. This was evidenced last week by Brandon Tate, who finally pulled off a deep reception in the 3rd quarter as he blew by Asher Allen for a 65 yard touchdown that ultimately put the game out of reach. Also, nobody expected BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead to be the 1-2 combo that runs for over 100 yards against one of the top run defenses in the league in the Minnesota Vikings.
Now, onto the Cleveland Browns. Under Eric Mangini, Cleveland is 2-5, but they have been in it till the 4th quarter in most of their games. They were on a bye next week, but two weeks ago, the Browns defeated the defending Super Bowl Champion Saints in the Louisiana Superdome, 30-17, with their defense forcing Drew Brees into four interceptions. Two of those interceptions were returned by David Bowens for touchdowns. Cleveland has the weapons to surprise a team that could be looking ahead to a primetime matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers next week at Heinz Field. Colt McCoy has filled in nicely for injuries to Seneca Wallace and Jake Delhomme completing 32 passes in 49 attempts in his two starts, but there is a possibility that Seneca Wallace could return as the starter for the game on Sunday. We’ll get into more into that with the keys to the game. Other Cleveland notables, include Peyton Hillis, who has been a huge improvement for Cleveland’s running game and former Patriot great, Ben Watson, who is the team’s leading receiver.
Here are my keys to the game:
1.Who starts at QB?: For the second straight game, the Patriots have to go into this game with a little bit of uncertainty in terms of who the defensive front seven will line up against on Sunday. Seneca Wallace is nearing a return to the roster and that might not be a good thing for the New England defense. In 2008, Wallace started in a nail biting game up in Qwest Field for the Seattle Seahawks. New England won 24-21, but the former Iowa State QB was 20-28 for 212 yards with one touchdown. Against this New England defense, Favre was 10-11 in the early stages of the game, proving you can complete the short passes against this defense. McCoy and Wallace both complete over 63 percent of their passes, so no matter who starts for the Browns, New England will need to put pressure on the QB to force turnovers.
2.Devin McCourty: When New England passed up on Dez Bryant in the first round of last April’s draft, they needed to make a surefire pick and I feel McCourty is that kind of player. He has the ability to turn an interception into a big play as Pats fans saw last week against Minnesota. In the 3rd Quarter, the Vikings had the ball at midfield and McCourty took the ball away from Percy Harvin and returned the pick inside the Minnesota 40, ultimately leading to a New England score. The rookie from Rutgers has had a pick in each of the last two games, and will most likely be matched up against Mohammad Massaquoi this week. McCourty is also underrated as a cover corner in terms of not allowing the big play in this bend but don’t break defense.
3.Special Teams: When two teams go up against each other with complete opposite records, special teams has the ability to keep a team in the ballgame. The Browns have that difference maker in Joshua Cribbs. Cribbs can play quarterback out of the wildcat and is a decent receiver, but he makes his impact in the return game. Even though Cribbs has not returned a punt/kick for a touchdown this year, he can give the Browns offense a short field to use Peyton Hillis more rather than rely on the quarterback driving a long field. Don’t forget the punter Reggie Hodges either. Against the Saints, Hodges had a fake punt that went for more yards than the entire New Orleans running game. So, always be prepared for the surprise and with the Belichick-Mangini feud, don’t be surprised if this happens
Prediction: The storyline that has gone under the radar is that Bill Belichick returns to Cleveland to take on Eric Mangini. We all know the history behind this feud and if New England is up big in the 4th quarter, this is a game where they run up the score. The Patriots are a six point favorite according to bodog.com ,and the Browns are not going to go away lightly. The Browns do give up the big play with a young secondary, although Sheldon Brown can make plays with his veteran experience. Cleveland’s pass defense is 26th in the league, which seems like a little treat for Brady and should allow him to get Welker and Hernandez back in the flow of the game. Cleveland hangs around late, but I like New England to cover the six points and win.
Patriots 27 Browns 17