Patriots Roll Into December

<p>The New England Patriots travel to Ohio this week to take on the sinking Cleveland Browns. The Browns once proud franchise has fallen into disarray with the losses mounting, the injury list growing, distractions in the locker room, and the head coach recently quitting. On paper, this looks to be another late season AFC mismatch of teams going in opposite directions, but... That's why they play the game. </p> <p>John MacKenna takes a look at this AFC matchup in this week 13 preview. </p>

Patriots Roll Into December
By John MacKenna
, Patriots Insider

Since losing star CB Ty Law with a broken foot on Oct. 31, the Patriots have played four tough opponents and won every game by playing the best football of anyone in the NFL.

Law's injury left the Patriots without both starting cornerbacks, as Tyrone Poole had already gone down with a knee injury. The challenge only grew tougher when Asante Samuel, the regular nickel back, suffered a shoulder injury that severely limited his contributions in this critical stretch.

The team's response to this crisis has been remarkable: four crucial victories in which they outscored their opponents, 120-50. These performances put the Patriots at 10-1, tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for best in the AFC, where a single loss could have cost the Patriots their chance to gain homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Patriots November defensive numbers are telling.

Patriots in
NFL Leader
for Season
Rush yards/game 68.0 75.4 (Steelers)
Points/game 12.5 14.9 (Ravens)
Third-down pct. 25.0 27.3 (Bears)

Here is more telling numerology from New England's November.

  • The Patriots have held opponents to 250.7 yards per game. Only the Steelers (244.2) have a better average for the season.
  • The Patriots have averaged 144.3 rushing yards, mostly by the magnificent Corey Dillon. Only four teams have higher averages for the season.
  • Tom Brady has thrown one interception.
  • New England is plus-eight in takeaway/giveaway.
  • The Patriots have 16 quarterback sacks, nearly half of their season total of 34 (second-best in the NFL).
  • Two opponents, the Ravens and the Bills, were 3-0 in their other November games. The Bills averaged nearly 34 points in their other three games but lost to the Patriots, 29-6.
  • Opponents have averaged 172.5 passing yards. Only four NFL teams have better averages for the season.

Given their remarkable November, one might think the Patriots could suffer a letdown this Sunday when they travel to Cleveland to face the 3-8 Browns, who have lost five straight and whose head coach, Butch Davis, resigned on Monday night. But this team rightfully regards every opponent as a threat and seems never to lose it focus.

"I think it's a situation that really makes the Browns extremely dangerous," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. "From the limited experience I've had in a situation like that, it can really create an aura suddenly of freedom, and sometimes confidence."

During this stretch without their cornerbacks, the New England defense caught two nice breaks when they faced the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens when each team was missing its star running back. Those absences allowed the Patriots to focus on pass defense and give plenty of help to the replacement cornerbacks, Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland.

The November opponents averaged only 18 rushing plays a game, and they had very little success, gaining only 3.7 yards per attempt. New England's run defense has solidified as young defensive linemen Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork have emerged alongside Pro Bowler Richard Seymour. Veteran Keith Traylor also has played well.

Belichick has praised the work of Warren and Wilfork. He said that Warren "is continuing to react better and read quicker. He has shown up on a lot of plays that he needs to show up on." About Wilfork, Belichick said, "Vince doesn't repeat errors. Usually, once he gets it, he gets it. You don't have to keep going back over it every week."

Warren, the Patriots top draft pick in 2003, had seven solo tackles and two sacks against Kansas City. He also deflected a pass and forced a fumble. He now has 3.5 sacks, second among New England linemen to Seymour's four.

Last week against the Ravens, Wilfork made three tackles and deflected two passes. He is eighth on the team with 40 tackles.

New England's veteran linebackers have also performed exceptionally during this stretch. MLBs Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson both sacked Ravens QB Kyle Boller last Sunday, and they are now tied for second on the team with 81 tackles. OLB Willie McGinest, at age 32, leads the team in sacks with 6.5. Rosevelt Colvin made his fourth sack of the season against Baltimore and is playing his best football since returning from the serious hip injury that forced him to miss most of the 2003 season.

Strong safety Rodney Harrison has continued his Pro Bowl-caliber play and leads the team with 106 tackles. Free safety Eugene Wilson also has come up big, filling in at cornerback and earning a game ball for his performance against the Ravens.

It's hard to imagine the Browns giving the Patriots much trouble. This will be their first game under interim coach Terry Robiskie, who was the team's offensive coordinator under Davis. Robiskie will probably have his team fired up, but the Patriots will likely anticipate overpursuit and use it against the Browns.

Cleveland might have to play third-string QB Luke McCown, because starter Jeff Garcia has a bad shoulder and second-stringer Kelly Holcomb suffered cracked ribs last Sunday. McCown, a rookie fourth-rounder out of Louisiana Tech, has thrown one NFL pass.

Regardless of who is taking snaps, the Browns lack the offensive firepower to penetrate a New England defense that is fifth in the NFL in points allowed (15.8). Browns RB Lee Suggs (365 yards, 3.2 per carry) is questionable with a toe injury. The "co-starter," William Green, has 548 yards on the season and a 4.1-yard average.

Look for the Patriots' pass rushers to come hard, especially against the Browns' right side, where Joaquin Gonzalez is moving from guard to tackle and Damion Cook is stepping in at guard.

The Browns erupted for 48 points last week against Cincinnati after being held to an average of 10 points in the three previous games. It's worth noting that the Browns have played five of their 11 games against defenses ranked in the top 4 in the NFL (Steelers twice, Ravens twice, Redskins).

Cleveland's receiving corps is solid, led by Antonio Bryant (35 catches, 528 yards) and Dennis Northcutt (35 catches, 447 yards). TE Steve Heiden had seven catches for 82 yards and three touchdowns against the Bengals.

The Browns can be a handful on special teams. Northcutt is sixth in the NFL in punt return average at 11.2 yards, and KR Richard Alston had three returns of over 50 yards in last four weeks. Kicker Phil Dawson is 19 for 21 on the season, with his only misses coming in the Browns' 10-7 loss to the Jets on Nov. 21.

The Browns were mediocre on defense before losing their top linebacker, Andra Davis, last week to a season-ending knee injury. With Davis out, the Browns allowed the Bengals to rush for 253 yards. Dillon, who leads the NFL with 112.1 yards per game, should be able to get yards in bunches everywhere he turns.

Cleveland DEs Kenard Lang and Ebenezer Ekuban each have five sacks on the season, but the rest of the Browns defenders have combined for only 10. The Patriots should be able to keep those two off Brady by using the tight ends to block and by running draws with Dillon.

John is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna"

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