Last week, the New England Patriots' first half woes continued. After a memorable comeback win against the Broncos, the Patriots were trailing 17-7 at the half to the then 2-9 Houston Texans. Then, Tom Brady and the offense took over in the 2nd half as the Patriots survived another close call, 34-31.
With just four weeks left in the regular season, New England is almost guaranteed to be going back to the playoffs. In fact, the Patriots can clinch the AFC East this weekend with a win and a Dolphins' loss (Miami is at Pittsburgh this week). New England also controls its destiny for at least the #2 seed and gets to watch the Colts and the Bengals knock each other off this week. Will the first half struggles continue this week?
It has been a whirlwind season for the Cleveland Browns (4-8) and first year head coach Rob Chudzinski. They have seen many signal-callers at the quarterback position, which included a torn ACL for former Patriots' quarterback Brian Hoyer. This week, they have more injury issues with Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden both fighting concussions. It is likely that Campbell (6 TD's, 3 INT's) will be able to play this weekend. They traded away their lead running back, Trent Richardson, to the Indianapolis Colts for next year's first round pick. That move has seemed to pay off for the Browns at the moment.
For Cleveland, it is all about wide receiver Josh Gordon. Gordon is the first player in NFL history to have two straight 200+ yard receiving games. The Browns' defense is still one of the best in the game statistically. They are 4th in the NFL in yards allowed and in the top five for both pass and rush defense. Cornerback Joe Haden has his own version of Revis Island as Cleveland has to use its above average defense at times to make up for a mediocre offense.
Here are my three keys to this weekend's game (1:00 ET, CBS) in Foxboro:
Jumping For Josh: Regardless of the Browns' quarterback situation, Josh Gordon still remains one of the best receivers in the NFL. I mentioned earlier about the historic last couple of weeks Gordon has had. However, despite missing two games this season due to suspension, his season has been outstanding. He is 3rd in the NFL in yards and leads the league in yards per game (about 125). This includes four 100+ yard games in his last five. The Patriots need to pay extra attention to Gordon with Aqib Talib not 100%.
Gordon is a deep threat that Jason Campbell can turn to in any situation and that led the Browns to close losses, including a near upset of then unbeaten Chiefs. Another name to keep an eye on for the Browns is tight end Jordan Cameron. Cameron has 24 targets in his last three games, but has not found the endzone since October 20th against the Packers. That could be partially due to the inconsistency Cleveland has at quarterback.
The Mighty Mingo: The Browns don't have an elite pass-rusher on the roster. They have lost defensive end Desmond Bryant for the year. Bryant was placed on the non-football illness list due to an irregular heartbeat. Bryant was tied for second on the team in sacks with 3.5. The leader in sacks on the Browns is Barkevious Mingo. The rookie 1st round pick out of LSU only has four sacks on the season and has not recorded a sack in the past month. The Patriots have struggled at times with protecting Tom Brady, but the Browns don't have that one player I think that can rattle Brady over the course of a full game. The strength for the Browns is the secondary, who hasn't allowed a 300+ yard passer this year. If Brady has more time to find Julian Edelman (Mini-Tron), Shane Vereen, and Rob Gronkowski, he will find the holes to exploit the Browns' defense.
What 'cha running about, Willis: The Patriots without Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo have been awful against the run. Last week, they allowed the Houston Texans minus Arian Foster to rush for 121 yards and four touchdowns. Do the Browns have enough offense on the ground to keep Brady off the field and gain significant chunks of yards per play? With Willis McGahee, that is unlikely. McGahee is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry this season. Plus, the Browns only have two rushing touchdowns this season. Even if the Patriots allow Cleveland in goal-to-go situation, the numbers say those won't likely result in touchdowns. To play devil's advocate, Chris Price from WEEI did mention that Houston had only two rushing touchdowns going into last week. Interesting!
I do have a lot of respect for the Browns' defense. This is a team that I would keep an eye on in 2014 if they can find the right quarterback. Joe Haden is an elite cornerback in the NFL, and I do expect whoever is covered by Haden to struggle in this game. That being said, the Patriots' offense continues to find its groove. They will hand the Browns' defense a healthy dose of Rob Gronkowski over the middle. Even with Stevan Ridley probably missing a second straight week due to fumbles, Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount have made plays in the running game. New England needs to play 60 minutes of solid football and I think this is the week they do it before two tough road games the next two weeks.
PATRIOTS 34 BROWNS 17