Game Review: Patriots Escape With Stunning 27-26 Comeback Win Over Browns

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Pokorny breaks down the Cleveland Browns' 27-26 loss to the New England Patriots.

The Cleveland Browns lost in stunning fashion to the New England Patriots this past Sunday by a score of 27-26. Re-watching the game was both a pleasure and a nightmare. Let's get to my complete game review to see all of the positives and negatives from the game.

Cleveland Browns vs. New England Patriots

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WEEK 14 - CLEVELAND BROWNS VS. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (COMPLETE GAME REVIEW)

  1. Goats of the Game: Officiating Crew - Our players did not deserve to lose this game. Even before the controversial calls at the end of the game, the Patriots kept making calls in favor of the home crowd, whether it be the spotting of the football for a first down, or whether a pass was caught or not. I won't cover the pass interference in this review, but when every media member is saying it's a terrible call, you know Cleveland has a legitimate gripe.

  2. Awarding the Game Ball: OLB Paul Kruger - It's been way too long since we've seen what should have been a game-changing type of performance from Kruger, but excluding that ridiculous ending, Kruger delivered. Yes, it probably helped that he faced a third-string right tackle, but two sacks, a forced fumble, and disrupting a couple of wide receiver screen passes made me content.

  3. Getting Cameron Involved Early: Over the first four games of the season, TE Jordan Cameron had 30 catches for 360 yards and 5 touchdowns. Over his next eight games, Cameron had 33 catches for 344 yards and 1 touchdown. I've demonstrated in my film reviews that he's been getting open, but we haven't been throwing to him as much. That changed against the Patriots, and QB Jason Campbell made sure he went to Cameron early on.
    Off1a_medium

    This is a running formation with only one wide receiver, WR Josh Gordon, at the bottom of the screen. Gordon kind of gets caught up with CB Aqib Talib here, so that's why I really don't have a distinct route drawn for him. Off of a playaction fake, the defender in green will come up and be frozen for a second, leaving the safety in the cyan with Cameron as his responsibility.
    Off1b_medium

    With a good throw, Cameron is going to win this battle every time. Campbell connects for 14 yards and a first down on Cleveland's opening drive -- this is the play that put them in field goal range.
    Off1c_medium

    On another note, the Browns' pass protection was superb throughout the afternoon. Heck, Campbell was able to take 10-yard dropbacks and would still never face any pressure. LT Joe Thomas owned DE Chandler Jones in particular, and the rest of the line did their jobs. On this play, you actually have TE Gary Barnidge doing a good enough job picking up the outside rusher too.
    Off1d_medium

    Yep, we'll take that protection all day.

  4. Utilizing T.J. Ward at ILB: The amount of snaps that Jordan Poyer (31%) should give you an indication of how often T.J. Ward played inside linebacker against the Patriots. Ray Horton pulled this look out early.
    Def1a_medium

    After guarding TE Rob Gronkowski in man coverage on the first two plays of the game (both incompletions), the Patriots faced a 3rd-and-10. Ward lined up at inside linebacker (he is the defender with the shaded cyan circle), and Poyer was at safety behind him.
    Def1b_medium

    This time, instead of going for Gronkowski (who is running an out route at the top of the screen), QB Tom Brady dumps the ball off to RB Shane Vereen, and Ward is quick to close in on him for only a gain of five yards. With his play against the run and the pass this season, Ward is having a very good contract year and will be able to cash in nicely when he's a free agent this offseason.

  5. D'Qwell Goes a Long Way for INT: On the Patriots' next possession, QB Tom Brady was picked off for the only time in the game.
    Def2a_medium

    WR Josh Boyce is running a dig route at the top of the screen. The defender to pay attention to is ILB D'Qwell Jackson, who has the shaded cyan circle. You can already see how far he'll be dropping back.
    Def2b_medium

    Based on the look the Browns are giving -- with the safety staying deep to cover the streaking receiver in the slot -- it looks like this dig route will be open. Even now, Jackson still has a good amount of ground to cover to get there, but he makes a diving interception to help set up a second Cleveland field goal.

  6. Pressure Returns as Browns Sandwich Brady: With the Browns up 6-0, the feeling was that Cleveland's inability to cash in for touchdowns would cost them, given the fact that Tom Brady is Tom Brady. On New England's next drive, Brady found his backup tight end on a wheel route of sorts on OLB Barkevious Mingo for 31 yards, putting New England in field goal range.
    Def3a_medium

    Facing a 2nd-and-10, the Browns got what they needed: a sack to help take the Patriots out of field goal range. Instead of Paul Kruger rushing from the right tackle's side, we have Mingo over there. The Patriots are going to do a playaction fake that involves a pulling left guard trying to come all the way over to block Mingo. Big mistake.
    Def3b_medium

    As the guard is trying to pull, Mingo makes a nice move and gets to Brady's feet. OLB Jabaal Sheard also has a step on LT Nate Solder on this play.
    Def3c_medium

    ...and down goes Brady. Both teams traded several punts for the remainder of the half, and Cleveland had to feel pretty good about shutting out the Patriots' offense for a half.

  7. How Did Barnidge Get So Open? The Browns' defense forced another stop to begin the second half, giving the offense another quick opportunity. Back-to-back completions to WR Davone Bess (10 yards) and TE Jordan Cameron (21 yards) gave the Browns a 1st-and-10 at the 40 yard line.
    Off2a_medium

    Be honest: when you saw a flag come flying and TE Gary Barnidge streaking 40 yards down the sideline, how many of you honestly thought the play would stand? I assumed it was probably an illegal pick or something, but it wasn't. How did Barnidge get so open?

    First off, this should have been somewhat of a red flag for the Patriots: Barnidge almost always lines up on RT Mitchell Schwartz' side, but here, he is lining up in the slot next to LT Joe Thomas. We know he's not there to help Thomas, so he's actually going to be a target on this play. The Patriots bring a six-man blitz, including both defenders who were on top of Barnidge. With CB Aqib Talib taking WR Josh Gordon one-on-one (green circle), that means the safety in the magenta circle will be the closest defender to Barnidge.
    Off2b_medium

    The safety doesn't rush over to Barnidge, but is playing the middle of the field as additional help on TE Jordan Cameron. As Barnidge is open, upon first glance, you can see why one would think that WR Josh Gordon did something illegal, like offensive pass interference.
    Off2c_medium

    The official's call was "illegal use of the hands to the face," and you can see the evidence of that upon closer inspection.
    Off2d_medium

    After the use of the hands, both players try to get physical with each other within the five yard range and end up getting tangled up and falling to the ground. From there, Barnidge catches the pass and shows impressive speed out-running the safety for the touchdown. As Barnidge enters the end zone, he doesn't even think about celebrating, believing just like everybody else that the play won't stand. This put the Browns up 12-0, as they did not convert their two-point try.

  8. Ward's Hit Takes Out Gronkowski: Earlier, we saw SS T.J. Ward playing some inside linebacker, but here, he is playing the role of a single-high safety.
    Def4a_medium

    ILB Craig Robertson (cyan circle) is going to be covering TE Rob Gronkowski. Whenever Brady saw Robertson as the defender down-the-field, he tried to exploit him.
    Def4b_medium

    Robertson does his best to stay with Gronkowski, but Brady makes a good throw and completes a pass for 21 yards, but at what cost?
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    Ugh, you hate to see this -- out of all the injuries, I just wish ACL injuries were the ones that didn't exist. I really don't think there is a winning situation for the NFL here. You can't keep placing additional restrictions on what a defender can do -- Ward knows high hits will be flagged, but a low hit won't be. It's as simple as that.

  9. Brady's Hesitation Leads to Fumble: On the Patriots' next play, we saw an usual sign of hesitation from QB Tom Brady that ultimately led to a fumble. Maybe the hesitation was a result of him just seeing his best receiver go down in writhing pain.
    Def5a_medium

    The person to pay attention to here is the running back.
    Def5b_medium

    Brady looks to the running back (to the right of the screen), and nobody is on him -- this would pretty much be a guaranteed 7-yard completion on 1st-and-10. Instead, Brady pump fakes tot he running back. The right tackle tries to ride OLB Paul Kruger around the edge, but Brady then steps up a yard in the pocket, allowing Kruger to take a quick inside angle and grab hold of Brady.
    Def5c_medium

    When Kruger grabs on to Brady, Brady tucks the ball into his waist with both hands. He turns and sees a tight end open in the flat to his left and begins trying to bring the ball up.
    Def5d_medium

    As Brady brings the ball up, though, you can already see here that he's lost control of it -- neither hand is actually on the ball, and when it comes loose, DL John Hughes falls on top of it, much to Brady's dismay.

  10. Miscommunication and Not Handling Vereen: The Browns moved the ball on their next possession but punted when they got near mid-field. The Patriots then began moving the ball, with a 32-yard run by RB LaGarrette Blount being a key play to get New England into field goal range.
    Def6a_medium

    Although QB Tom Brady had been targeting RB Shane Vereen a few times already, this is when things started to pick up for the duo. Facing a 3rd-and-7, Vereen was running a quick little V route to the middle of the field, trying to take advantage of ILB Craig Robertson again.
    Def6b_medium

    You tell me -- does this look open for a touchdown?
    Def6c_medium

    Well, it probably would have been one, had Brady not thrown it so poorly.
    Def6d_medium

    Let's take a look at something else, though. Pre-snap, the wide receiver on the bottom of the screen started out wide left, before motioning more to the slot. In the screenshot above, right as the snap is coming, you can see three of our defenders -- CB Leon McFadden, FS Tashaun Gipson, and ILB D'Qwell Jackson -- trying to signal to each other.
    Def6e_medium

    Just going on body language, there appears to be indecisiveness as to who is supposed to do what. McFadden ends up going inside to help with Vereen, which means Gipson now has to take the receiver to the outside.
    Def6f_medium

    Right after the pass falls incomplete, Gipson starts having words with McFadden. When you have two players -- McFadden and Jordan Poyer -- both seeing a significant uptick in reps in the secondary, communication problems are bound to happen until they get more experience.

  11. Gordon's 80-Yard Touchdown: After the Patriots settled for a field goal to make it a 12-3 game, I thought the Browns had all but secured a victory when WR Josh Gordon went 80 yards on the first offensive play for a touchdown.
    Off3a_medium

    Pro Football Focus dissected the play with better terminology than I would, so be sure to check that out.

    In short, what you need to know is that the Patriots are bringing the house -- a seven-man blitz. The Browns are sending four receivers out, so each defensive back picks up a receiver. That means that even though a safety appears to be in the middle of the field, they are really going to be racing over to the other side to cover TE Jordan Cameron, leaving CB Aqib Talib on a very difficult one-on-one assignment if the pressure doesn't get to QB Jason Campbell in time.
    Off3b_medium

    The Browns protect Campbell well again, the ball is on the way, and Gordon takes care of the rest.
    Off3c_medium

    A little stiff-arm only increases the separation between the two. Talib has been known at times for stirring things up, but he had praise for Gordon following the game: "He's a hell of a player. He's young [22], he's going to make some noise in this league, man, he’s pretty good."

  12. Streaking on Robertson w/ No Help: When the score got to 19-3 near the end of the third quarter, QB Tom Brady had finally had enough. It was as if he said, "f@%$ it, I'm going for it all."
    Def7a_medium

    "Going for it all" meant a full-on attack by RB Shane Vereen, who became Brady's go-to weapon now that Gronkowski was out. On this play, S Tashaun Gipson is playing one of the safety spots closer to the bottom of the screen. CB Joe Haden has his man one-on-one. In this situation, I'd have no problem if the Browns didn't need Gipson to help Haden over the top. However, Vereen motions out wide left, and ILB Craig Robertson follows him for clear man coverage.
    Def7b_medium

    Uh-oh. Notice Gipson in the cyan circle. He will be eying the underneath crossing route.
    Def7c_medium

    I don't blame Robertson for not saying with Vereen -- this is a streaking foot race, and I don't expect Robertson to win that battle. Brady has already launched a pass sky-high at this point, and Gipson is trailing way too far behind.
    Def7d_medium

    There is the separation. Vereen is slowed down upon catching the pass, so this goes for 50 yards instead of a touchdown, but it might as well have been a touchdown. The Patriots connected on their two-point play as well to draw within 19-11.

  13. Bring Out the Tricks - Unbalanced Line: Mid-way through the fourth quarter, the Patriots settled for a field goal to make it a 19-14 game. With 5:38 to play, could the Browns put the Patriots away? Over the years, we've seen Browns coaches pull out a unique play late in a game at times to finish a surprising win (like this should have been), and that's what head coach Rob Chudzinski did here.
    Off4a_medium

    After everyone lines up, you can see LT Joe Thomas is motioning over to the right. TE Gary Barnidge then shifts over a bit to line up at the normal left tackle spot, and TE Jordan Cameron will also motion over next to Thomas on the end of the line.
    Off4b_medium

    There is the formation -- what the hell could possibly be coming? Cleveland actually has the advantage on a run play to the right side here.
    Off4c_medium

    Here comes the trickery. At the snap, WR Josh Gordon goes upfield by a full yard to sell like he is blocking, before coming back to handle the reverse from RB Willis McGahee. This is all timed up well, so C Alex Mack and LG Jason Pinkston leak out late as the lead blockers (as does QB Jason Campbell).
    Off4d_medium

    Here is the action developing, as New England starts crashing to the right for a running play.
    Off4e_medium

    Now Gordon has the ball and a convoy of blockers. Showing his strength and underrated agility, Gordon actually takes this for a 34-yard gain, instead of something like 15 yards, which is what it looked like it would be initially. The only mistake that hurt the Browns in hindsight? Gordon went out of bounds, stopping the clock. Yards are all good and fun, but when you have a lead, bleeding the clock can be more important at times.

  14. Campbell Delivers in Spite of Refs: Two plays later, QB Jason Campbell was flagged for intentional grounding. He was outside the pocket, but the ball did not get back to the original line of scrimmage. I wouldn't have had a problem with the call, had RB Fozzy Whittaker not been standing a couple of yards from where the ball landed, and the fact that Campbell was being hit as he tried to throw the ball.
    Off5a_medium

    The penalty set up a 3rd-and-17 for Cleveland, and the thought process for fans had to be, "great, we'll have to punt, and a touchdown for the Patriots will win it now." Gordon is running his most common route here, the dig route, right at the sticks.
    Off5b_medium

    Talk is absolutely glued to Gordon the whole time -- there is very little separation to be had here, but Gordon continues to stay focused and secures the pass from Campbell as he goes to the ground.
    Off5c_medium

    As a tribute to the great day of protection that our offensive line had, here is how beautifully protected Campbell was when he delivered the strike to Gordon.

  15. Selling Out for the Run: On the very next play, the Patriots were packed at the line of scrimmage, ready to sell out for the run.
    Off6a_medium

    Cleveland sent two receivers out, though -- TE Jordan Cameron at the top, and WR Josh Gordon at the bottom.
    Off6b_medium

    The Patriots bite for the playaction fake (which almost every quarterback does better than QB Brandon Weeden would), and you can already see Cameron breaking open.
    Off6c_medium

    Cameron actually has time to set himself for a better throw, but he decides to use his arm strength to just get the ball to Cameron. Because of that, the throw isn't in stride, but it's still complete for 16 yards down to the five yard line and helps drain some clock.

  16. Cameron Shoves Off Defender for TD: The Browns faced a 2nd-and-goal from the four yard line after RB Willis McGahee suffered a concussion.
    Off7a_medium

    Once again, the Patriots are thinking "run" all the way, which makes even more sense here since we don't have a wide receiver on the field.
    Off7b_medium

    Nobody runs a pass pattern at first, but it's a playaction fake. Where I drew the arrow, you can see TE Jordan Cameron doing a swim move to shove the defender toward where a run play would be, and away from coverage on him as he gets ready to break wide open.
    Off7c_medium

    Campbell lofts the throw up for Cameron for the touchdown, and the Browns went up 26-14 with 2:43 left in the game. I've seen plenty of NFL collapses before, but based on the tempo of this game, I felt about 99.9% sure that we had a victory sealed up. What were the odds that New England could score two touchdowns and get an onside kick with only one timeout remaining?

  17. Up the Seam on McFadden: How did the Patriots get downfield so quickly on their first comeback-touchdown drive? With the same route from WR Danny Amendola on back-to-back plays, with CB Leon McFadden in coverage.
    Def8a_medium

    Here is the first play, with McFadden giving leverage up toward the inside, which is probably by design to prevent the Patriots from using the sideline to stop the clock. Still, you hate to give up such big chunks.
    Def8b_medium

    This first play went for 23 yards.
    Def8c_medium

    This might look like the same thing from a different angle, but it's really just the very next play.
    Def8d_medium

    This time, it goes for 19 yards. Again, I don't want to harp too much on this -- typically, with a two-possession lead, you are playing a prevent defense of sorts to ensure the clock keeps ticking.

  18. Home-Favored Officiating: What we couldn't control was the officiating throughout the game being favored toward the Patriots, particularly late in the game.
    Def9a_medium

    Here is an example that hasn't been discussed much: CB Joe Haden tries to stop RB Shane Vereen from reaching the sideline. It looks like Vereen is down as he reaches the ball to the sideline.

    Granted, this is a bang-bang play and probably quite tough to determine live, but the Patriots signal that the clock should be stopped. If the clock isn't stopped, it changes the situation quite dramatically for the Patriots.
    Def10a_medium

    When the Patriots do get the touchdown, here is a clear shot of S Jordan Poyer's hit to the shoulder of WR Julian Edelman.
    Def10b_medium

    Neither official throws the flag right away.
    Def10c_medium

    Instead, they get together and discuss it, and then throw the flag for unnecessary roughness, which makes a touchdown-after-an-onside-kick more plausible.

  19. Patriots Execute Onside Kick Perfectly: I can't complain too much about the onside kick here. Sometimes, the team attempting the onside kick just executes it to perfection, and that's what I attribute that too here.
    St1a_medium

    The yellow arrow shows where RB Fozzy Whittaker is; above him is S Tashaun Gipson.
    St1b_medium

    There is the onside kick -- you can't see it above, because K Stephen Gostkowski has dribbled it probably better than he's ever executed in practice. One might ask, "why aren't the Browns attacking the football?" Well, the closest guy might have been S Tashaun Gipson, but he would've had blockers ready to slam into him. Odds are, Gipson would have touched (but not recovered the ball early), and one of those million Patriots would've recovered.
    St1c_medium

    The two Patriots running upfield block two of our players to protect Gostkowski, who is in perfect position for a recovery.
    St1d_medium
    Whittaker doesn't recover the ball, but he's the only guy who prevents Gostkowski from just recovering the ball on his own. Ideally, what I think Whittaker meant to convey about his intentions (after the game) is that he wanted to block Gostkowski into the ball shy of the 10-yard requirement. It didn't work out, and the Patriots recovered.

  20. Coverage on the Interference: The pass interference on this play was absurd -- one of the worst, phantom type of calls you can get in the NFL. With that said, I don't care for how the Browns played this. New England needed a touchdown and had no timeouts, but we gave them a single-high safety look.
    Def11a_medium

    Gipson is the deep man, and we have T.J. Ward (green circle) spying RB Shane Vereen.

  21. Final Assessments: I'll just quote Bill Belichick from his Monday press conference:

    "Cleveland did a good job. They outcoached us and outplayed us in every area."

    I concur.

  22. Special Teams Tackles: There were three special teams tackles by the Browns with one each by OLB Eric Martin, S Jordan Poyer, and S Johnson Bademosi. There were two assists, with one each by Bademosi and ILB Darius Eubanks.

  23. Snap Counts on Offense & Defense: If you missed them, here are the links to our snap count trackers for offense (link) and defense (link). On offense, the tight end production was through the room. On defense, we saw a lot of snaps for CB Leon McFadden and S Jordan Poyer, but few snaps for NT Phil Taylor.

  24. Brownies: The Browns were 7-of-15 (47%) on third down conversions, while the Patriots converted 6-of-15 (40%) of their third-down attempts. ... Cleveland can't seem to stop anybody to save their lives in goal-line situations at the one yard line. ... The crazy thing is that if the Browns had kicked a field goal to take an eight-point lead with 2:43 to play, New England's strategy, and the outcome of the game, might have been different.

    K Billy Cundiff's pregame range was about 52 yards, but Rob Chudzinski said he wanted to try to push it for the 58-yard, game-winning attempt. ... On QB Jason Campbell's final completion of the game to TE Jordan Cameron, he might have had a sideline completion to WR Josh Gordon (in field goal range) available, but it would have been a very tight throw.

Up next, the Browns take on the Bears for their final home game of the season. Chicago has been getting solid quarterback play from Josh McCown, but Jay Cutler might be healthy enough to play this week. Josh Gordon vs. Alshon Jeffery is a good matchup between young wide receivers.

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