Not only will the New England Patriots be playing in their second consecutive 1:00 o’clock matchup, but it will be against another team that has come off a loss to the (4-9) Jacksonville Jaguars. Similar to the Texans, the Browns have individual talent on both sides of the ball but lack chemistry as a unit to bring them to the next level. The Patriots barely escaped last week after a 17-7 halftime deficit, defeating Houston 34-31 behind the leg of Stephen Gostkowski. It wasn’t pretty but Brady and Belichick figured out a way to pull out a victory on the road.
Fast forward a week later and the Pats face a below average Cleveland team that has lost three games in-a-row. The Browns traded away one of if not their best player in Trent Richardson to the Colts for future first-round picks earlier his year. Insert veteran Willis McGahee and it seems to be a great move for the future as T-Rich has since been demoted for Donald Brown in Indianapolis. There’s no secret after the past two weeks, WR Josh Gordon is a beast and an elite threat in the NFL. His consecutive 200-yard games is an NFL record and he is averaging just over 120 YPG. Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty and crew surrendered 8 receptions and 121 yards to Andre Johnson last week. This should be interesting. Sprinkle in the talented TE Jordan Cameron, CB Joe Haden, S T.J. Ward and the Browns have the ability to make a bunch of impact plays over 60 minutes. The real question is, who will execute for all four quarters? The Patriots. Check out these three keys to victory for Sunday:
1) Re-establish the run: Brandon Bolden was a healthy scratch in today’s practice, leaving reporters and analysts scratching their heads. Could this be the week Ridley returns to the active roster after being disciplined last week for three straight games with a fumble? There is no doubt he is the Patriots’ best all-around back, he already proved this last year. Ball security issues continue to haunt the LSU alum. Shane Vereen is clearly the passing back while LeGarrette Blount and RB James Devlin handle the power duties. Cleveland’s run defense is ranked 5th in the NFL, limiting opponents to 98.9 YPG. ILB D’Qwell Jackson and DT Phil Taylor are the two core leaders in their front seven. Expect to hear their names, as well as former Raven Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard early and often. If Bolden is indeed inactive, the Patriots have no other choice but to bring Ridley back into a starting role. Blount can not handle a full workload on his own and Vereen is too valuable to be pressed into a lead back role. Despite this uncertainty, it is imperative that the Patriots execute a balanced offensive attack to keep the Browns guessing.
2) Contain Josh Gordon: Quite obvious after the aforementioned statistics he posted in the last two games (24/598/3). His 6’2″ frame wins on jump balls and after breaking one tackle he scampered for a 95-yard touchdown last week. This dude is dangerous. He is averaging 19.5 yards per reception and has 7 touchdowns on the season. It’s hard to forget how Belichick managed to limit TE Jimmy Graham to zero receptions earlier in the season. Sure, he was somewhat bothered by an ankle injury but that doesn’t matter – no one is 100% after Week 1. Aqib Talib has recently squared off against Steve Smith and Demaryius Thomas. While half of the game is a mental battle for Talib, he may be up against his toughest opponent in Gordon. McCourty will need to help over the top all afternoon. QB Jason Campbell has been cleared to start after suffering a concussion. His mobility adds an interesting dimension to the defensive schematics.
3) Start strong: The Patriots have created a horrible habit of digging themselves deep holes to start games. 24-0 against the Broncos and then 17-7 in Houston. This trend has got to stop and while they have been able to overcome early turnovers, that won’t fly in the playoffs. New England has historically been a second-half team due to the mastermind adjustments that Belichick draws up. After being accused of “spying” again last week, you can bet on the Patriots getting off to a fast start on Sunday.
In order to earn a number one or two seed in the playoffs, New England needs to conquer the easy road ahead of them and win out. None of their opponents have winning records. Pats roll easily 31-17.