PREDICTION: Patriots 34-15
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Browns have been in every game, losing their first three by a combined 12 points, and the approach of keeping it close enough to have a chance late applies against New England. Disrupting QB Tom Brady, sacked 10 times in the past four games, gives the Browns a puncher's chance. If Brady has time, he'll carve up a porous secondary that has yielded 13 touchdown passes. Browns coach Eric Mangini has made it a weekly habit to withhold the name of his starting quarterback as long as possible but all signs point to rookie Colt McCoy starting a third straight game. He'll lean on RB Peyton Hillis, who is again near full health after a week off.
FAST FACTS: The Browns have allowed only one rushing touchdown in 2010. ... Patriots opponents have completed 69.8 percent of their passes, including 13 touchdowns.
Logan Mankins certainly missed playing football every Sunday during his holdout, but the one thing he missed the most was simply being around the guys -- one of the rituals players look forward to at the start of every football season.
"It's pretty special to play football," said the veteran offensive lineman, who reported to the team Wednesday after an offseason holdout that began in April. "You become really good friends with all of those guys. Any time you line up with someone and you see all of the work they put in and that you put in together and you go out there and do it together, that's pretty special.
"So, I miss doing that with these guys. I'm close with all of these guys. We're all friends. Like everyone thought I was in California -- I've been here since April. I've seen the guys all the time. We've played golf together, gone out together, ate together. So, that was the hardest part: being away from guys that I truly like and like to be around."
As for the specifics on what ended the holdout, Mankins won't get into details.
"I'm not looking at it as if I'm early ... Actually I'm eight weeks late, so I'm not early," he said.
The obvious answer is he wanted to get credit for an accrued season so his contract will expire at the end of the year. The only way to do that was to report by Week 10.
Mankins could've come back later in the year and still earned credit for the season, hence why he referred to himself as being "early." Nonetheless, he's glad to be back, and so are his teammates.
"He's such a great guy," Tom Brady said of Mankins. "He's a great player. He's coming in with a great attitude. I've had a chance to talk to him over the last few months. He's been a great contributor to this team and to this organization. You can never have too many great football players or too many great teammates, so it's great to have him back."
Dan Connolly did a nice job at the right guard position while Mankins was absent, but the presence of a former Pro Bowl lineman will make the Patriots' running game much better in the long run. Plus, Connolly as a reserve adds depth to the offensive line.
"It's good to have him back on the team," head coach Bill Belichick said of Mankins. "He is a part of the team here now; he's reported. He's been a great player and person for our football team. He is tough. He's smart. He's a dependable player and he's done all those things since he has been here. You just can't have too many guys like that on your football team, so we're glad he's back."
And a rookie shall lead the Cleveland Browns yet again.
For the third game in a row and the fourth week in a row, the Browns two veteran quarterbacks did not practice on the main days of prepartion. Both Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace missed Wednesday and Thursday's work, which means barring a shock Colt McCoy's third start will come against New England at home.
"We're moving pretty strongly in that direction," coach Eric Mangini said of McCoy starting.
McCoy has the distinction of getting his first three starts at Pittsburgh, at New Orleans and now against the Patriots and Bill Belichick's confusing defensive alignments. McCoy has played with a lot of poise his first two games, but he's not exactly set rookie records. He had just 74 yards passing in New Orleans, a game the Browns won because LB James Bowens returned two interceptions for touchdowns.
At this point, McCoy should be able to handle the entire offense. He has been practicing with the starters for a month. He also had a bye week to prepare. Finally, the coaching staff showed no fear the way it used him in Pittsburgh.
New England might confuse him, but it would be because he's a rookie not used to such complex schemes, not because he's being thrown in before he's ready.
--RB Fred Taylor missed practice again Thursday with a toe injury. Barring a quick recovery, it's unlikely he'll be on the field Sunday, which would be his fifth consecutive game out of the lineup.
--S Jarrad Page also missed his second consecutive practice with a calf injury, and it's unlikely he'll be on the field Sunday in Cleveland.
--WR Deion Branch missed portions of Thursday's practice with a hamstring injury, though there's a good chance he'll be ready to go Sunday. At worst, he'll be a game-time decision.
--WR Matthew Slater is suffering from an ankle injury and missed portions of Thursday's practice. Slater will likely be a game-time decision Sunday in Cleveland.
--S Patrick Chung missed portions of Thursday's practice with a knee injury, but should be ready to go Sunday in Cleveland. The injury doesn't appear to be too serious.
--QB Jake Delhomme seems a long way from being back from a high ankle sprain that has kept him out of all but two games. His Browns experience has been a bad one, and he might not start another game for Cleveland.
--QB Seneca Wallace might return to practice on Friday, which raises slight hopes he could play Sunday. That, though, would probably be on an as-needed basis. Rookie Colt McCoy took all the reps in the heart of the practice week.
--DL Shaun Rogers was limited in practice all week with an ankle injury, but the Browns sound as if they are just being cautious with him. Rogers is expected to play Sunday.
--DE Kenyon Coleman was held out of practice to rest a sore knee. Coleman is expected to play Sunday. The Browns will need both him and Shaun Rogers if they expect to get consistent pressure on Tom Brady.
--LB Matt Roth has been taking things slow with a hamstring strain. The Browns will give Roth all the time he needs, because he is valuable to the defense, especially in the running game.
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