The New England Patriots are beginning to turn some heads. At 5-4, they sit with the seventh seed in the AFC Playoff picture. One game back of the Buffalo Bills for the coveted AFC East title. Starting out 2-4, this team became an afterthought to the greater view of the NFL. The narratives began to swirl; “Bill Belichick is washed up. Mac Jones was an overrated prospect. Tom Brady was everything to the dynasty.” Despite playing well in all of their games, they didn’t command national attention. They own just one Sunday Night Football game, which they played in Brady’s return against the Buccaneers. Now the Patriots own just a Thursday Night game next week versus Atlanta, and a date on ESPN’s Monday Night Football with the Buffalo Bills next month.
This week, they get the Cleveland Browns, who too have played some great football. In a strong AFC North, they’ve shined despite the drama from wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr, and sit right outside the playoff picture. This game will have a playoff atmosphere in Gillette Stadium, and it’ll be yet another huge game in the young career of one Mac McCorkle Jones. So without further delay, or drama from OBJ, set it up, Bailey! Let’s get this one underway!
Three Keys to The Game
Key #1: Establish A Healthy Ground Game
This will be a particularly difficult key because of how thin the Patriots are at the position. After last week’s suffocation of the Carolina Panthers, the Patriots have been down Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson all week. Neither one of them practiced at all this week. As of now, Brandon Bolden and J.J. Taylor will be the lone two backs available against Cleveland on Sunday. The Browns own the fourth-best rushing defense in the league as far as yards allowed. It’s unlikely the ground game will be their strong suit come kickoff, but making Cleveland respect their ability to go to the ground-and-pound offense and be successful will go a really long way in keeping up with the Browns’ explosive capabilities on their own offense.
Key #2: Force Mayfield To Beat You
The Browns, like the Patriots, have relied heavily upon their powerful run game. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have formed a potent running back duo and have frustrated defensive coordinators around the league. But their passing game hasn’t done them justice, ranking in the bottom 12 in passing yards, and bottom five in pass attempts. It’s important to mention that Chubb was ruled out for Sunday’s game and Hunt has been on injured reserve in the previous weeks. So the Browns will be rolling out De’Ernest Johnson against the Patriots. Johnson should not be slept on. In his coming-out party versus Denver, Johnson dropped 146 yards and two touchdowns on the Broncos’ heads. Shutting down the run will be just as important as if Chubb and Hunt were both available.
The Browns offense may be statistically better and more stable emotionally, and literally, without OBJ, but the Patriots’ defense is much stronger than the Cincinnati Bengals, even without Jonathan Jones and no longer owning Stephon Gilmore on the roster. Baker Mayfield will have just as much to prove as the young signal-caller on the other side.
Key #3: Finish Offensive Drives
The one thing that’s been evident about the Patriots in their losses is that they too often stall out on offense. In their most brutal loss against the Saints in week three, the Patriots didn’t get points on the board often enough and it cost them. The defense can only put up with so much before they begin to bend. New England needs to make the most of their drives and get points more often than not. The defense cannot be relied upon for a touchdown every week. Especially against one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the league. The defense can be relied upon to do their job, I’m not confident in saying the same for the offense. Despite them improving week by week, this will be a game where they’ll need to take a massive leap forward to lock up a potentially playoff-changing win.
X-Factor: EDGE Matt Judon
Edge Rusher Matt Judon has been one of the best free-agent acquisitions in the whole league. He’s already racked up nine sacks (T-3rd in the league) and 10 tackles for loss (T-5th in the league) on the season. This week more than ever he’ll have to live up to his un-Belichickian price tag. The key to stopping any passing offense is getting up in the quarterback’s face and causing bad decisions. Mayfield’s below-average under pressure (21st in adjusted completion percentage under pressure), though at about the average against the blitz. So natural pass rush is the best way to get after the former first overall selection, and Judon hasn’t let down yet. If the former Raven can just force Mayfield into some uncomfortable situations, assuming Lawrence Guy and Christian Barmore don’t let Johnson have an encore in Gillette, the Pats offense will be given all necessary opportunities against Cleveland.
This marks the beginning of a really challenging stretch for Belichick’s Patriots team. Over the next five games, they’re all against currently playoff-caliber teams. After Cleveland, they travel to Atlanta on a short week to play the NFC’s 7th seeded Falcons. Followed up by a return home to play the top-AFC team against the Tennessee Titans. Then the aforementioned primetime matchup versus the Bills in Buffalo. To close out this brutal stretch, they go to Indianapolis after the bye, then meet the Bills again in Foxboro. Closing the season rather softly against the two-win Jacksonville Jaguars at home, then the season finale against the Dolphins, who have a unique type of home-field advantage when it comes to playing the Patriots in South Beach.
To return back to the point, I think this is where experience will strive. And there’s no coach in the NFL more prepared, or driven to the extremes of preparation, than Bill Belichick. Kevin Stefanski is as talented as they come in the NFL. There’s a reason he won coach of the year in 2020. But in a game that will likely be decided by efficiency and being safe, give me the New England Patriots in a low-scoring chess match. A football masterclass that could spark a very impressive run for this Patriots team. Who are very close to knocking on the door of national attention.
Final Score: 20-17, New England (6-4)