New England Patriots (10-1) at Cleveland Browns (3-8)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Kevin Harlan, Randy Cross; DirecTV, 712
SERIES: 19th meeting. Browns lead series 11-7, but the Patriots have won the last two and four of the last five. The two clubs met five times between 1991-1995 when Bill Belichick was coaching the Browns and Cleveland was 3-2 in those games. New England is 3-1 since the Browns returned to Cleveland in 1999. The series dates back to 1971 and Cleveland won nine of the first 11 meetings.
Patriots: offense 9th (12th rush, 11th pass); defense 9th (8th rush, 13th pass).
Browns: offense 25th (20th rush, 21st pass); defense 21st (26th rush, 14th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: If rookie QB Luke McCown starts, it won't be by the Browns' choice. Getting your first NFL start against a Patriots defense that has allowed an average of 9.3 points the past three games isn't ideal, but Jeff Garcia and Kelly Holcomb likely won't be available. So the burden falls on RB Williams Green - and Lee Suggs if healthy - to find holes behind an offensive line in shambles and keep McCown out of long passing situations in which the Patriots can come after him. The Browns are hoping to get a spark under interim coach Terry Robiskie, and it needs to start with a defense that allowed 58 points last Sunday. The Patriots will go to RB Corey Dillon early and often against the Browns, who are playing without MLB Andra Davis and don't tackle well in general. If Dillon gets rolling, QB Tom Brady will then take shots against Cleveland's secondary that is likely to be without CB Daylon McCutcheon.
FAST FACTS: Patriots: Dillon needs three rushing touchdowns to tie his career high of 10 set in 2000 and '02. ... In winning the Super Bowl two of the previous three years, the Patriots did not lose a game after Thanksgiving. Browns: Opponents to date have an NFL-best 74-47 (.612) record. ... Robiskie was 1-2 as Washington's interim coach in 2000.
PREDICTION: Patriots 30-16
- WR David Givens broke out over the final month of last season and into the
postseason, but his production has carried over in this, a contract year,
for the restricted free agent to be. He leads New England with 49 receptions
for 755 yards, both career highs. He and Deion Branch have become a formidable
tandem to defend. "We're starting to take the roles as the starting receivers
on the team," Givens said. "I'm happy about that, but winning is
what ultimately matters. Troy Brown, David Patten and Bethel Johnson can all
make plays. Deion and I have worked our tails off the last couple of years
and have improved as receivers."
Givens certainly stepped up into the No. 1 role when Branch went down in Week two and missed the next seven games. "That's my job, he said. "I feel like once you make it to the league and start to make plays, my expectation level keeps increasing. If I catch five balls one week, I expect to catch six the next."
So how did he feel when he caught only one for 3 yards in Branch's Monday night return to action against the Chiefs back on Nov. 22?
"No one is going to be exactly happy with those stats, but I'm happy we won the game," Givens said. "There's not much more to be said than that."
- LB Tedy Bruschi has 2.5 sacks this season, but two of those have ended in
defensive touchdowns for the Patriots. He sacked Drew Bledsoe back on Oct.
3 and forced a fumble that Richard Seymour returned 65 yards for a touchdown
and then his strip sack of Kyle Boller last week ended in a Jarvis Green fumble
recovery in the end zone for a touchdown.
- CB Randall Gay figured to be a long shot to make the roster during training
camp as a rookie free agent out of LSU, but he has not only stepped in to
start the last four games, but he is now second on the team with two interceptions
after picking off Boller last week. He trails Eugene Wilson by one for the
team lead and is tied with linebacker Tedy Bruschi. He has more than both
Ty Law and Tyrone Poole - the regular starters - who have one each.
- PK Adam Vinatieri was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for November.
In four November games, Vinatieri 14-for-14 on field goal attempts, compiled
51 points and threw a touchdown pass to Troy Brown on a fake field goal. He
also had a tackle in kick coverage against the Chiefs. Browns kicker Phil Dawson, who spent 1998 on the Patriots' practice squad learning under Vinatieri,
commented on his affinity for the Patriots' clutch kicker, especially since
he can appreciate the rough conditions in which Vinatieri is often asked to
- "The conditions he is faced with are as hard as anywhere in the league,"
Dawson said. "I am in a similar boat here in Cleveland. The thing I learned
from Adam is that you are going to have to be flexible in your technique.
Early in the year you can be pretty aggressive in your momentum to the ball,
your steps to the ball, but when that field starts getting torn up and you
start playing in the snow and the rain and all the bad footing, Adam, I don't
know that I have ever seen the guy slip. He knows how to change his technique
up so that he can get a good plant foot on the ball because that is every
bit as important as actually kicking the ball. Look at last week. They played
the Ravens and I guess it was raining pretty badly up there and he had a great
day. Not many people can handle the conditions the way he can."
- NT Vince Wilfork, the Patriots' 2004 first-round pick, continues to progress
despite a steep learning curve trying to learn to play in a two-gap system
in which he has played both nose and end.
- "It has been steady from day one," coach Bill Belichick said.
"He has been out there every day. He works hard. The techniques that
he is playing now are ones that he has had a lot of reps at and has had a
lot of snaps doing. I think Pepper (Johnson) and Romeo Crennel have done a
good job coaching him and making him understand the different finer points
of the techniques. It has been consistent.
- "There are a lot of different things for a defensive lineman to deal with at this level -- a lot of different blocking schemes, a lot of different blocking techniques, a lot of different pass protection schemes and techniques. It is a big load, but Vince isn't an error repeater. Usually once he gets it he gets it. He has also been playing a little bit of end and nose, as well as some situational third down stuff. When you add all of that up together it is a lot of variables."
- WR Andre Davis was placed on injured reserve with a sprained right toe.
He has played only one game since Oct. 17.
- RB Lee Suggs is slow healing from his sprained toe. He missed the game against
the Bengals last week and could not practice Wednesday or Thursday.
- OL Damian Cook will make his second straight start at right guard. The position
has been unstable since Kelvin Garmon was injured Nov. 7.
- MLB Mason Unck could see some playing time Sunday. Barry Gardner has been
named the starter to replace Andra Davis, who was placed on injured reserve
Tuesday with a torn left MCL.
- QB Nate Hybl, signed to the practice squad Wednesday, is expected to be elevated to the active roster because of the injuries to Kelly Holcomb (ribs) and Jeff Garcia (shoulder).
INSIDE THE CAMPS
If it's possible for a two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback of a 10-1 team be flying under the radar and quietly having a strong season, Patriots signal caller Tom Brady is that man. The reason for that, though, might just be that 2004 seems to be the year of the quarterback.
Brady is on pace to throw for a career-high 3,800 yards despite a pace that would have him throw only 490 passes as compared to the 527 he threw last year and the 601 he threw in 2002. His 7.76 yards per attempt is almost a full yard higher than any other season in his career and he is on pace to finish with 26 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. Through 11 games, he has a career-best 91.3 passer rating and has improved his overall record as a starter to 44-13, which balloons to 5-13 if his 6-0 postseason record is factored in.
But despite those numbers, Brady has only the 11th-best passer rating in the NFL. Guys like Peyton Manning, Daunte Culpepper, Drew Brees and Donovan McNabb seem to be stealing all the headlines because of their amazing seasons. And the fact of the matter is that Brady is not having the type of statistical season that those players are having and he has rarely had to lead a fourth quarter or overtime comeback as he did seven times last year. New England has only been tied or behind entering the fourth quarter twice so far this season, one ended in a win at Buffalo and the other a loss at Pittsburgh.
"I think Peyton is having a great year," Brady said. "A guy like Daunte Culpepper, it seems like he is having a great year. Trent Green, Brett Favre - I think there are a lot of good quarterbacks. I don't know why so many are so productive. Some years it's a defensive style. A couple of years ago, the most touchdown passes in the league was 28 and this year Peyton has 41 with five games left. Some quarterbacks are having really nice years."
Coach Bill Belichick claims he doesn't pay attention to statistics all that much, but rather wins and losses.
"I wasn't aware of (that so many quarterbacks were playing better than their normal season)," Belichick said. "I really don't have a big reaction to it. In Tom's case, I'm not concerned about his stats, but our wins. Obviously his performance, and to a degree those numbers, will have a bearing on it. But the most important thing is how he manages the team and is able to lead on game days.
"He does an outstanding job of adjusting to game situations, be it the weather, the field conditions, the score, the specific situation that comes about in a particular game and he handles that extremely well, whatever they are."
Brady certainly has been at his best over the years when the pressure is greatest, which is why he owns a pair of Super Bowl MVP trophies, but this year, as he has changed his game to include more control at the line of scrimmage and more downfield passing, he has continued to produce and win.
It will be interesting to see if Brady is playing in his second Pro Bowl in a couple of months. Manning is a lock and Brees has to go as well. That will leave Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Green and Jake Plummer battling for that last spot.
Jeff Garcia is still bothered by a sprained shoulder and three ribs on Kelly Holcomb's left side are cracked, which means rookie quarterback Luke McCown is likely to start Sunday against New England.
Asked whether the odds are stacked against a rookie making his first start against the Patriots, 10-1, McCown answered plainly.
"I think the odds are stacked against anybody playing the Patriots," he said. "Those guys are really good. You have to be on your toes every snap. The way they run that defense is mind-boggling.
"You have to be confident in what you're doing as an offense. It's more about knowing what we're going to do than knowing what they're going to do against us."
There is still an outside chance Garcia or Holcomb could play, but the odds of either recovering by Sunday are slim. Holcomb did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. Garcia took some snaps Thursday and did some limited throwing. Coach Terry Robiskie said he wanted Garcia to keep the passes short so he wouldn't strain the injured shoulder, but Garcia cut loose with a couple deep throws, Robiskie said.
McCown's only regular season pass was an incomplete Hail Mary at the end of the Dallas game the second week of the season. Statistically he was the Browns' best quarterback in preseason; he completed 24 of 42 passes for 342 yards and four touchdowns. He threw one interception and had a quarterback rating of 105.5. His 34-yard touchdown pass to Richard Alston on a scrambling rollout to the right with no time left on the clock gave the Browns a 21-19 victory over the Chiefs in the third preseason game. He threw a touchdown pass to Darnell Sanders with 3:40 left in the game to cut the Chiefs' 12-point lead to 19-14.
McCown's style resembles Garcia's more than it resembles Holcomb's. He won't bail from the pocket as quickly as Garcia does, but if the Patriots pass rush gets hot he is fast enough to run from trouble. The Patriots have 34 sacks. The Browns have given up 27 sacks.
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