The win two weeks ago in New Orleans was unexpected. The national press took notice and the Browns got more respect, but with picks like, "The Browns will lose, but it will be close". I'm not sure even those of us who thought they could win expected a dominating performance like this. It has been a while since a Browns team physically dominated one of the better teams in the NFL like this.
For a change, it's hard to think of too many things that went wrong. So many things went right. Here are some random thoughts about what I saw:
Brian Daboll has taken his lumps, even from me. But this was a brilliantly called game. From the first play pass to Mohammed Massaquoi that set an aggressive tone, to the trick play that resulted in a touchdown, to running the ball and controlling the clock, Daboll had his best game with the Browns. He pushed all the right buttons and had the right calls at the right times. It was nice to see him fired up and excited. Now just learn who not to chest bump!
Likewise, Rob Ryan followed up the amoeba defense we saw in New Orleans with even more strange formations and personnel groupings. We've seen the 1-3-7 and 0-4-7 alignments before. But this time, the Browns were rushing two at times and dropping nine men into coverage. He had Brian Shaefering bumping receivers at the line. At times, nobody lined up across from the offensive line and only two men rushed, one from each edge. The Browns played many passing downs without any defensive linemen in the game. Tom Brady had lots of time to throw many times, yet it did not help as the Browns forced him to throw over or around them.
If there was ever a team win, this effort by the defense was it. Many players made plays. I will single some of them out, but this was a great performance as a group. The Patriots were the highest scoring team in the NFL at better than 29 points per game, and the Browns held them to a deflected TD and a garbage time TD. Impressive.
Peyton Hillis, welcome back! He played hurt in Colt McCoy's first two starts and contributed, but he dominated this game. It was one thing to run like he did early, but everyone knew the Browns would run late and the Patriots did not come close to stopping it. Hillis ran hard up the middle and leaped defenders. He also made three big catches. When the Patriots began to use run blitzes late in the game, Hillis burned them by cutting back. After running up the middle so much, the Browns dialed up outside runs and put the game away. This was the best performance of Hillis' career to date and it was devastating to the Patriots. The only knock was a fumble when he was fighting for extra yards. It did not end up hurting the Browns.
Because of the success of the running game, play action was killing the Patriots. Check out the pass play to Benjamin Watson. The linebacker bit big time on the play fake.
McCoy did more than manage the game. He made plays. Some of them with his arm, some with his feet, including a very impressive scramble, and some with his brain. He threw accurately, especially on the run, and converted some big third downs. Consider that McCoy threw at nearly a 75% clip and did not have a single incompletion in the second half. He had one bad throw early, but when you balance that with great throws to Evan Moore, Joshua Cribbs, and Brian Robiske, it was a great performance. It is amazing how much he has grown over his three starts. McCoy spread the ball around as much as might be expected when you complete just 14 passes.
How about going for it on fourth down from your own half of the field? The play call was genius. I hear that McCoy had the option to call for the big shift. When the Browns went from a heavy inside run formation to an empty backfield, the Patriots shifted and left just three players in the middle. McCoy ran the sneak for three yards. Just fabulous!
Brad Seely obviously had a strategy to pooch the kickoffs. That led to the muffed kick early in the first quarter. Cribbs had a nice kickoff return on the opening kickoff. There was one time when the kick coverage was a little iffy. But since the Browns only punted three times, we didn't see much of some of the units. I liked seeing the kickoff team out on the field so many times!
This was the best game of the year by the offensive line. They blew the Patriots off the line, especially in the second half. The Browns not only dominated the time of possession 38 to 21, they held the ball 21 minutes in the second half. The Browns threw only five passes in the second half. And in fact, not only was McCoy not sacked, he was rarely even touched. Eric Steinbach in particular had a great game.
Speaking of blocking, nicely done Lawrence Vickers and Robert Royal. Vickers even got some rare carries, including one for a key first down late.
Two defenders are becoming consistent key performers week in and week out. Ahtyba Rubin had the only sack of the game, and it was impressive. Scott Fujita is becoming the leader of the defense and he made some big plays, even if they weren't spectacular. For example, coming in, arms extended, in front of Brady and disrupting a pass when the Patriots were deep in their own end. It went incomplete.
Likewise, some maligned players played well. Let's start with Abe Elam. He has not been high on my list, but this was his best game in Cleveland. Not only did he made some plays against the run, but his strip of the ball at the end of the first half was huge. The Patriots might have closed to within 17-14 at the half. Instead, they got nothing and the Browns had all the momentum at the break. Eric Wright also had a good game. He made some stops, didn't get burned, and had an "interception" late, though perhaps a "steal" would be a more apt description of the play.
Chris Gocong also had his best game as a Brown. He seemed to be roaming free much more than what we have seen earlier in the year. Marcus Benard and Matt Roth didn't get to Brady, but the Browns didn't always chase him that much. Roth had a big tackle for loss.
There was nice work in the secondary by Sheldon Brown and T.J. Ward, and to a lesser extent, Joe Haden. Mike Adams has struggled at times this year, but had his best game so far. Ray Ventrone got called for a pass interference call that led to the second New England touchdown, but I thought that was a borderline call.
It was great to see Massaquoi be an important part of the game. Four catches for just 58 yards, but each catch resulted in a first down.
Excellent use of the wildcat to set up one of the most creative trick plays I've ever seen in the NFL. Fabulous execution. Cribbs, Hillis, and Cahnsi Stuckey all sold it well.
Mike Bell left with an injury, but he was ineffective once again.
Another great win, yes, but this one was a whooping. The Browns had an excellent game plan, executed it well, and made few mistakes. Meanwhile, the Browns capitalized on Patriot mistakes. Playing ball control to keep the New England offense on the bench was just what the doctor ordered. By the time Tom Brady took his first snap, the Browns were already ahead 10-0.
I'm not sure what has changed or who made the change, but the Browns are playing loose. Instead of playing conservatively, they are playing with a much more wide-open, aggressive style, and it is working. Please, keep it up! Eric Magini deserves a lot of credit for keeping the team focused after all of the close losses, injuries, and in some cases, plain old bad luck. You sense that there is a turnaround in progress.
Football is a game of emotion. Big wins over talented opponents build confidence. This Browns team came out believing they could win and they beat the Patriots in all three phases of the game. The Saints win was entertaining, but the offense was bailed out by the defense and special teams, except for the long, sustained drive in the forth quarter. In this game, the offense was the key, holding onto the ball, methodically driving it, and getting points. The Browns played aggressive, they played physical, and they played smart.
The Browns now have just one game left in their murderous seven-game stretch. They've won three of the six games so far. Imagine what might have been if the Browns could have closed out the first two games. Let's also keep in mind that the Browns are 7-5 over their last 12 games going back to 2009.
I cannot believe I am saying this, but if the Browns can beat the Jets this coming Sunday, they would head into the softer part of the schedule at 4-5. I'm not saying the Browns are going to the playoffs, but they could make some noise down the stretch. That's doubly true since the Browns finish by playing all three AFC North teams, and two of those are at home. I think it is fair to say that no team is looking forward to playing the Browns right now.
Finally, it seems to me that the Browns have to stick with Colt McCoy. That's not because they have to evaluate him or decide if they need to draft another quarterback. It's as simple as this: McCoy gives the Browns the best chance to win. He plays smart, he throws accurately, he makes plays with his feet, and he moves the chains. There will be a fan revolt if one of the veteran quarterbacks comes back in and makes the kind of mistakes we saw earlier in the year. That being said, McCoy will have an off game somewhere along the way. That's a given. But the Browns need to work through it with McCoy under center.
The Jets come to town with numerous side stories. Ryan vs. Ryan. Braylon Edwards returns. Mangini faces his old team. Lots of ex-Jets in Cleveland. This has become a big game. Can the Browns win?
The season is short. Bark hard!