This week, the Cleveland Browns take on the New England Patriots. Can the Browns overcome the rough patch they've hit to pull off another monumental upset of the Patriots? Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
This advantage needs no explanation: the Patriots have Tom Brady, while the Browns, at one point, were scrambling to see if Alex Tanney or Caleb Hanie could make a spot start after just being signed. Yeah.
As it turns out, Jason Campbell was cleared to practice on Thursday, and it looks like he'll get the start on Sunday. Hopefully the time off at least gave his ribs some time to heal, and that he can put together a decent-looking performance on Sunday -- we can't afford to have "indecisive Campbell" back under center.
It's also too bad that this couldn't have been Tom Brady vs. Brian Hoyer, because that would have been an intriguing matchup.
As I stated in my scouting report on the Patriots, it's hard to tell which player will see reps on any given Sunday, but any of the team's four running backs do very well in this system. Shane Vereen might not get the most carries on Sunday, but he will be heavily utilized as a receiver, and I'm sure Tom Brady can't wait for him to be lined up on Craig Robertson.
The Browns had their most productive day of the season last week running the football; Willis McGahee was even able to get 14 carries in! The Patriots' run defense is ranked even worse than Jacksonville's, so McGahee and company might actually have some more opportunities. Still, any one of the Patriots' four running backs could probably start for Cleveland, which means there's no way the Browns get an advantage here.
Jordan Cameron's production continues to fizzle in lieu of Josh Gordon's production, but this week's matchup still marks a battle between two of the AFC's best receiving tight ends: Cameron and Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski is still considered the better receiver; we can only hope that Cameron continues to grow into a more dominant receiver like him.
At the receiver position, it's hard to downgrade the Patriots' possession receivers: Danny Amendola and Julian Edelmen. They are good at what they do, but the team doesn't have anyone near the caliber of Gordon at receiver. Therefore, we'll rank this position as "even," with the Browns' big-time threat in Gordon being cancelled out by the Patriots' other weapons besides Gronkowski.
The Patriots' offensive line has been consistent in their run blocking all season, but the pass blocking has been a little questionable for New England's standards. Tom Brady has already been sacked 32 times this year -- if Cleveland records 1 sack on Brady, it'll be the most times he's been brought down in a season since his first season as a starter in 2001, when he was sacked 41 times.
Keep in mind that the Patriots throw the ball a lot, so the high number of sacks doesn't mean Brady is facing pressure every play. If there is a particular weakness on the Patriots' offensive line right now, it is at right tackle. Sebastian Vollmer broke his leg in Week 8 and is done for the year. Vollmer's backup, Marcus Cannon, started three games before suffering an ankle injury that forced him to miss last week's game. Third-string right tackle Will Svitek is expected to start for the second straight week.
Heading into the season, if you told me that our opponent was starting their third-string guard, I would have been very confident that I'd be giving Cleveland the advantage on the offensive line. The pass protection from the guards and Mitchell Schwartz continues to be under expectations, though, with no sign of improving.
The Browns will be without defensive end Desmond Bryant for the rest of the season, but this is the position they have the most depth at. Seventh-round pick Armonty Bryant will see 22 to 35 snaps in his place, according to defensive coordinator Ray Horton, and John Hughes and Billy Winn are also expected to see some action there. Cleveland has the depth to not miss a beat on the defensive line, as long as a guy like Phil Taylor is healthy.
It's tough to compare the Patriots' defensive line since they run a 4-3 base defense, but the reason they aren't favored here is because they lost both of their starting defensive tackles, Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, for the season. For most of the year, the team's sixth-round pick, Chris Jones, and an undrafted free agent, Joe Vellano, have filled in for them at defensive tackle, and the results against the run have been terrible. According to Pro Football Focus, "Jones is currently the lowest graded defensive tackle (-21.2), and Vellano (-7.5) is not far behind."
On the bright side, New England's defensive ends get a lot of pressure. Chandler Jones leads the team with 10.5 sacks, and Rob Ninkovich has 5 sacks on the other side. Jones also has 5 sacks.
I wanted to see what the Browns' defense was like without Craig Robertson. After he's missed a couple of games due to injury, I can now say that I'm happy that he's expected to be back. Will our outside linebackers be able to get any pressure this week against another quarterback that gets rid of the ball quickly? And, will Brady pick on our linebackers' struggles in coverage?
The Patriots lost their best linebacker earlier this season, Jared Mayo, to an injury. Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes is currently dealing with something "not injury related," but will probably still play on Sunday. The outside linebackers are Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins. The Patriots often operate from the nickel, though, so Collins, the team's second-round draft pick, doesn't see very many snaps during the game.
This is the most exciting aspect of the game for me: Josh Gordon vs. Aqib Talib. I'm not trying to overrate Talib's abilities -- I would take Joe Haden over him -- but it's still probably the toughest challenge Gordon has faced yet. Talib did suffer a hip injury earlier this season, and since his return, he's been slowed down a bit. Still, the Patriots don't have gaping holes in their secondary, as the other safety and cornerback play has been adequate.
Joe Haden will no doubt be seeking redemption after yielding a game-winning touchdown last week. This week, it's not about shutting down one particular receiver -- it's more like "Tom Brady vs. Joe Haden," if Brady chooses to attack that side of the field. Brady's accuracy will make it tough to snag interceptions, though. It'll be interesting to see which of our safeties the Browns put on Rob Gronkowski in single or double coverage.
The other storyline of note is that third-round pick Leon McFadden will see a lot of action, possibly even over 50% of the snaps, since Chris Owens is now on injured reserve.
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski is 28-of-30 on the season, including two 53-yard field goals at the end of last week's game.
The Patriots aren't much of a threat on kickoff returns, but Julian Edelman has been solid on punt returns, averaging 11.6 yards per return on 30 attempts. The Patriots also defend kickoffs and punts well, and are led by Pro Bowl coverage specialist Matthew Slater.
Cleveland got a spark from Jordan Poyer last week on a punt return, so we'll see if he can continue that this week. Fozzy Whittaker might not get many opportunities to return kicks, since Gostkowski is among the league leaders in touchback percentage. Lanning had a poor day punting the football last week, and you have to wonder if his knee is bothering him.
The odds aren't stacked in Cleveland's favor, and I probably look foolish for picking the Browns to win in each of their past three games, only to see them blow opportunity after opportunity. The Patriots are one of the AFC's best teams, while the Browns are still trying to find themselves amidst another quarterback merry-go-round.
New England Patriots 31, Cleveland Browns 20
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- Browns Place CB Chris Owens on IR; More Playing Time for Leon McFadden