FOXBOROUGH - Robert Kraft was smiling, shaking hands, and greeting fans yesterday at Foxboro Stadium, but he was not about to get carried away over the fortunes of his New England Patriots following their latest triumph, a 27-16 win over the Cleveland Browns.
Not yet, anyway.
“One week at a time,” said the Patriots owner. “One week at a time.”
Carefully and conservatively, the Patriots measured and calculated what was ahead. From Kraft down to the 53d player, nobody wanted to take the leap that so many are making - that the Patriots, barring a disastrous collapse, will be in the playoffs.
“One step closer,” said running back Antowain Smith. “We’re one step closer.”
“One slip, and we’re sitting home in January,” cautioned Ty Law.
The Patriots, who improved to 8-5, struggled at times to put away the Browns, needing four turnovers and several big plays. But they again remained focused, winning their third straight and fifth in six weeks.
The Browns trailed New England by only a half-game in the wild-card chase entering the game, so it was critical for both teams. The Patriots also wanted to make the Browns pay for some of the trash-talking they did after beating New England last season, one of Cleveland’s three wins.
“They’re big talkers,” said Law, “and the quotes we heard from them after last year’s game, we didn’t appreciate them. We knew they didn’t respect us. They were boasting about beating the Patriots. That’s not good.”
Big plays? There was a fourth-quarter pooch punt by Adam Vinatieri, coupled with a nice play by Jermaine Wiggins to keep the ball out of the end zone, that pinned Cleveland at its 2. The ensuing Browns punt left the Patriots with great field position, and they converted with a touchdown that iced the game.
There was a big third-down run by Smith, who was contained much of the day, to help the Patriots run out the clock, and an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown by Troy Brown.
Then there was the return of Terry Glenn, who caught four passes for 67 yards, and an overall toughness by the Patriots, which is becoming the team’s trademark.
It all adds up to a feeling that the playoffs are in the Patriots’ future. At 8-5, they have games at Buffalo (next week) and Carolina, two of the league’s weak sisters. In between is a home game against Miami, which leads the AFC East at 8-3 entering tonight’s home game against the Colts.
Tom Brady played a bit more like the novice he is, throwing two interceptions, but he completed 19 of 28 passes for 218 yards and kept his composure when it mattered most.
The Patriots held a 20-10 halftime lead, but Cleveland cut it to 20-16 with 12:39 to play on the second of Phil Dawson’s second-half field goals.
With just less than 10 minutes to go, the Patriots defense, which did not allow a touchdown (Corey Fuller’s interception return and three Dawson field goals accounted for Cleveland’s scoring), forced a turnover.
Roman Phifer pressured quarterback Tim Couch and had him by the ankles as Couch released a pass toward Quincy Morgan, who was hit by Otis Smith and juggled the ball, which landed in the hands of a hustling Anthony Pleasant. Pleasant fumbled, but Smith recovered at the Browns 35.
The Patriots did nothing with the field position and lined up for a 53-yard field goal. Instead, Vinatieri took the direct snap and punted the ball toward the Cleveland end zone. As the ball bounced at the 1, Wiggins, careful not to touch the goal line, dove and kept the ball in play. Long snapper Lonie Paxton downed it at the 2.
“We work on that play at the end of practice once a week on Friday,” said Belichick. “It’s the last play we practice. It’s usually well-executed by Adam in practice, sometimes not as good as the 1-yard line, but pretty effective. Jermaine did an excellent job to down it.”
Wiggins said, “We do it just like that all the time in practice.” The Browns challenged the call, but it was upheld. The defense then dug in to force a three-and-out, and Brown’s 20-yard return of a Chris Gardocki punt put the Patriots at Cleveland’s 36 with 6:04 to play.
On second down, Smith (21 carries, 76 yards) took a pitchout and ran 18 yards off left tackle, with Matt Light making a devastating block. Four plays later, Smith scored from 5 yards with 2:43 remaining to seal the win.
Vinatieri (54 yards) and Dawson (27) traded first-quarter field goals. Cleveland had to settle for Dawson’s 3-pointer after having a touchdown overturned on a replay. It appeared Dennis Northcutt had a 10-yard touchdown catch, but referee Walt Coleman ruled the ball hit the ground as Northcutt tried to gain control.
Cleveland took a 10-3 lead with 1:02 left when Fuller picked off Brady and raced 49 yards for the score.
Brady wasn’t fazed by the interception. As he often has done, Brady answered a poor possession with a good one. Starting at their 34, Brady and the Patriots marched down the field, converting four first downs. Smith, who converted a fourth-and-1 play from the 3, scored from the 1 to tie it, 10-10, with 9:39 left in the half.
A third-down sack by Phifer forced the Browns to punt with 3:45 to go. Brown caught Gardocki’s punt at the 15, and received two big blocks, one from Lawyer Milloy on Dwayne Rudd, the other by Richard Seymour on Gardocki. Brown did the rest.
“I’ve been wanting to make a play all year,” said Brown. “It was getting a little frustrating, but the opening was there and I just ran as fast as I could.”
The Patriots made another big defensive play late in the first half when Terrell Buckley intercepted Couch at the Patriots 5. That was a potential 10-point swing as the Patriots moved the ball to the Cleveland 20 after a couple of Brady throws to a wide-open Glenn and Vinatieri kicked a 38-yard field goal to make it 20-10 at the half.