Saturday, December 7, 2013

Four Point Stance: Browns at Patriots


The New England Patriots can officially clinch the division with a win Sunday and a Miami Dolphins loss. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, however, has insisted that the Patriots' focus remains solely on what they can control.

Coming off yet another come-from-behind victory over the Houston Texans last week, the Patriots' next controlled experiment is a home bout with the struggling Cleveland Browns. After capping off a three-game winning streak in October, the Browns are now on the second of two three-game losing streaks and face steep task in the Patriots if they want to bring that landslide to a halt.

New England (9-3), meanwhile is still in the hunt for a first-round bye.

When the Patriots have the ball:
The Patriots are up against what Belichick has said is the best coverage linebacker group they've face all season, but that won't stop quarterback Tom Brady from striking the middle of the field with a healthy Rob Gronkowski running routes. Gronk, as always, will be an impact player in this one, but the Patriots have more than shored up their perimeter and will take their fair amount of shots at the outside of a Cleveland defense that is among the league's worst in generating turnovers. Cleveland has a formidable run defense and should be able to contain the Patriots' by-committee stable of backs, though Shane Vereen provides a different element with his ability to split out at receiver and catch the ball out of the backfield.

When the Browns have the ball:
The Browns have been awful running the football, but the Patriots haven't been much better at stopping the run. With Jason Campbell at the helm, there's no doubt Cleveland will try to play a bit of ball control by testing Willis McGahee against New England's beat up defensive front. However, a high-powered Patriots offense will undoubtedly force the Browns to go to the air early and often in order to keep up, which will mean heavy dose of receiver Josh Gordon, who despite working with multiple quarterbacks this season, is second in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,249. Cornerback Aqib Talib will have his hands full with Gordon, as will the Patriots centerfield with Browns tight end Jordan Cameron.

Tom Brady. The Browns' biggest challenge this week will simply be to keep pace with Brady. His effectiveness will dictate how aggressive Cleveland is, itself, on offense. If Brady turns it into a shootout, the Browns have no chance. Cleveland has given up the fewest pass completions of 40 yards or more in all of the league with just two, so they match up OK in terms of making Brady work for his yardage. The future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, however, will be more than happy with taking what he's given. Almost all the time, that's good enough.

The Browns lead the all-time head-to-head series between the teams by a 13-9 margin, dating back to 1971. Cleveland, in fact, won the last battle in 2010 behind stout defense and a monster game from running back Peyton Hillis. The Browns, however, lost six of seven prior to that game.

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