With the 8-4 Bengals and Colts merely a game back of your 9-3 Patriots, it's imperative for the Pats to keep winning if they want a first round bye in the playoffs. This week, that means taking on the Cleveland Browns and their emerging superstar, Josh Gordon. Here's a look at the matchups that could determine this game.
When the Browns have the ball:
We will find out what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. In this case, the "unstoppable force" is Cleveland's anemic running game, and the "immovable object" is the Patriots dismal run defense. Something's gotta give in this battle of weaknesses.
Patriots fans will have some real cause for concern if the Patriots can't stop Cleveland from running on them. The Browns may be look good for the future from the Trent Richardson trade, but the short term results of the trade have been running back rotation of whatever's left of Willis McGahee's knees, Chris Ogbonnaya and Fozzy Whitaker. They might have some of the NFL's best names, but they've contributed to a Browns running game that ranks near the bottom of the league in nearly every statistical category: yards per game (82.3, 28th in the league), yards per carry (3.7, 27th), yards (988, 29th) and rushing touchdowns (2, dead last in the NFL).
On the other side, we all know the story of the Patriots run defense. The Pats have almost always been stout against the run under Bill Belichick, but they've also almost always had big Vince Wilfork in the middle of their defensive line. Now, they're down Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo and their replacements simply haven't been up to the task against the run. The result has been a run defense that has been gashed all season to the extent of 4.5 yards per carry, 138.2 yards per game and 1,658 yards surrendered, numbers that would all be the worst in the league if it wasn't for Chicago.
There's no sugar coating it. For the Patriots to stop the run, even against a bad Browns team, several players need to step it up. Chris Jones and Joe Vellano need to do a better job of holding up at the point of attack (in other words, not getting driven 5 yards off the line of scrimage). Likewise, linebackers like Donta' Hightower need to do a better job of attacking the line, filling gaps, and getting off of blocks, especially if Brandon Spikes winds up missing this one to rest his injured knee.
In the passing game, Browns QB Jason Campbell (yes, it's been confirmed he'll get the start) will look to get the ball into Josh Gordon's hands as much as possible. He'd be stupid not too, as Gordon has produced at a Megatron-esque level all season while catching balls from the likes of Brandon Weeden. Gordon did his best to hype up his anticipated matchup with Aqib Talib, but it's unlikely the Pats will exclusively shadow Gordon with Talib in man coverage due to the corner's nagging hip injury (Talib is listed as questionable for Sunday). The Pats tried to work around Talib's injury by playing more zone last week, but the plan backfired as miscommunications led to lots of wide open receivers for Houston. We'll see if the Pats coaches trust the players to communicate well enough to run the zone effectively this time; if not, expect Talib to get Gordon but with constant safety help.
The Browns have been the Gordon show recently, but they do have some other weapons who could hurt the Pats banged up secondary. Tight end Jordan Cameron is the type of big, athletic pass catcher who give the Patriots bigger, slower linebackers trouble in coverage. He'll also be harder to deal with because of attention the Pats safeties will need to direct Gordon's way. Browns quarterbacks haven't looked Cameron's way nearly enough in the past month or so, but the matchups could be there for Campbell this week.
The Browns other two receivers are Greg Little and Davone Bess. As a former second round pick, Little has tantalizing athletic ability, but drops and inconsistency have marred his Cleveland career. However, he certainly is a threat to be accounted for due to his raw talent, particularly with a Patriots secondary with only one of it's top four corners healthy. Assuming Talib does play and takes Gordon, this would look like a matchup for rookie Logan Ryan.
The Patriots are all too familiar with Bess, a slot receiver who hurt the Patriots often while a member of the Dolphins. Kyle Arrington will likely draw this matchup, although he too has been limited by a painful groin injury.
Of course, the best way to keep those weapons from hurting you is to hit the quarterback. Despite having two blue chip linemen in LT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, the Browns rank near or at the cellar in both sacks allowed (42) and quarterback hits (a league worst 100). Some of this is surely due to quarterbacks (cough Weeden cough) holding onto the ball too long, but the Browns offensive line as a unit has undeniably been a disappointment this year. With Joe Thomas having his usual stellar season, it wouldn't surprise me if the Pats move Chandler Jones around a bit on Sunday to get him some better matchups to exploit. Rookie linebacker Jamie Collins has also flashed some pass rush ability in recent weeks; I'd personally like to see him blitz a little bit more often.
When the Patriots have the ball:
The Patriots offense is back. After struggling through an injury plagued first half, the Pats have climbed all the way to sixth in the league in points per game (26.8). They've been buoyed by the return of Rob Gronkowski, who has had a huge impact in both the red zone and third downs.
However, the Patriots face a legitimately good defense this Sunday in the Browns. Led by cornerback Joe Haden, the Browns have held opposing quarterbacks to a 59.5% completion percentage and only 207.8 yards per game. Their run defense has been even stingier, as they are one of only five teams holding opponents under 100 rushing yards per game (98.9). Only the Jets give up less than the Browns 3.5 opponent yards per carry.
Since Gronk's return, the Patriots have moved the ball on every defense they've faced, including Carolina's vaunted front. With their full arsenal of weapons, the Patriots simply can spread any defense out and create mismatches for Tom Brady to find and exploit. That will have to be the case this Sunday.
How this matchup plays out depends largely on how the Browns deploy Haden, their best defensive player. Haden normally simply takes the opponents best receiver, which would mean Julian Edelman this week. However, the Browns have struggled covering tight ends, giving up 4 touchdowns in their last three games, leading to speculation that Haden could wind up on Gronk. The Patriots would likely welcome that; Gronk wouldn't have the speed mismatch he normally has against linebackers, but he could easily box out the much smaller Haden for high percentage looks every route (similarly to how Tony Gonzalez obliterated the Patriots defense earlier this year).
If Haden stays with Edelman, Gronk duties will likely fall on safety TJ Ward. Ward is a very solid player, but there isn't a guy in the league that can stop a healthy Gronk.
Similarly, I have yet to see a guy in the league that can deal with Shane Vereen's explosive speed as a receiver out of the backfield. That could particularly be an issue for the Browns, who run a 3-4 base defense and have bigger, slower linebackers as a result. The idea of someone like outside linebacker Paul Kruger trying to turn and run with Vereen should have Tom Brady licking his chops.
If the Browns decide to have Haden lockdown on Edelman, it will be interesting to see where Tom Brady goes for outside production. Aaron Dobson has already been ruled out with his ankle injury, while Kenbrell Thompkins is questionable with a hip injury. It could mean a big day for Danny Amendola, who gets a chance to flash his ability to play on the outside, as well as increased opportunities for rookie Josh Boyce and the returning Austin Collie.
Of course, in order to throw, you must protect Tom Brady. The Patriots have mostly done a solid job of that since getting their weapons back, as the O-line has benefited greatly from the offense running smoothly again. Cleveland's pass rush is right near the middle of the pack with 33 sacks despite the lack of any single dominant pass rusher. The two guys to key on will be top 6 pick Barkevious Mingo and Kruger. Mingo has been inconsistent in his rookie season, but he has the athleticism and length to be a real pass rushing terror, while Kruger is more of a high-motor, power rusher. Third string right tackle Will Svitek has stepped into the Patriots starting lineup pretty seamlessly so far this year, look for him to continue his strong play.
The Patriots have used their passing game (and particularly the dual-threat of Gronk) to set up favorable matchups to run against all season. They'll likely have to this week against that stingy Browns front. Nose tackle Phil Taylor is one of the most underrated linemen in the game, while DE Ahtyba Rubin, LB D'Qwell Jackson and LB Paul Kruger are all excellent run defenders. However, the Patriots are confident in their ability to run against nickel packages, regardless of the opposition. Their weaponry will force the Browns to make concessions; stay in base and watch the passing game pick you apart, go to nickel and try to stop a power running game while out-numbered in the box.
I suppose I should address the Stevan Ridley situation here, but I have honestly no idea what his role will be on Sunday. My suspicion is that he'll get a few carries as he starts to work his way back into a role on this team, but it wouldn't surprise me to see Ridley holding a ball on the sidelines again either. The Browns are dead last in the league with only 5 forced fumbles all season, so this might be a good week to start rebuilding Ridley's confidence.
The Browns special teams took a big blow in October when explosive return man Travis Benjamin was lost for the season with a knee injury. He's been replaced largely by Fozzy Whitaker on kick returns and Davone Bess on punts and neither has had the same spark that Benjamin provided.
The Patriots kicking game (kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Ryan Allen) continue to be excellent, but the kick return game has struggled all season. Rookie Josh Boyce will likely be the deep man this Sunday. He hasn't broken one yet, but certainly poses a bigger threat than LeGarrette Blount was earlier in the season. Keep an eye on what he does with his opportunities.
It's Bill Belichick versus Rob Chudzinski. Need I say more? No? Good.
Always a factor for the Patriots. Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard and Steve Gregory are all questionable in the secondary alone, although only Dennard is expected to sit out this week. Brandon Spikes is questionable with a knee injury. On offense, Will Svitek is listed as questionable ankle injury, leaving the Pats frighteningly thin at tackle since Marcus Canon has already been ruled out for a return this week. Aaron Dobson is also out with an ankle, while Kenbrell Thompkins is questionable with a hip injury.
And that's on top of losing Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and Sebastien Vollmer for the season.
On the Cleveland side of things, starting DE Desmond Bryant was lost for the remainder of the season due to an irregular heartbeat this week. However, he represents the only major injury, as Jason Campbell was cleared to return under center. With Brandon Weeden still unavailable due to his concussion last week, the Browns will be forced to choose between trick shot wonderkid Alex Tanney and Caleb Hanie if anything happens to Campbell.
The Patriots will be looking to stay undefeated in the cozy confines of Gillette Stadium. They also need to keep winning for playoff seeding purposes. They remain only one game ahead of both Indianapolis and Cincinnati, who coincidentally play each other this week.With Cinci holding a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Pats courtesy of their Week 5 win, Pats fans should be rooting for Indy to turn the tide and get a win Sunday.
The Patriots are also only one game back (with a head-to-head tiebreaker in hand) of Denver for the AFC's top seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. With a win and a Denver loss to Tennessee (unlikely, but any given Sunday, right?), the Patriots will leapfrog the Broncos for the top seed with only three weeks to go.