CLEVELAND - Their membership in the NFL elite entitles the Patriots to a gimme from time to time, like yesterday’s 42-15 shellacking of the hapless Cleveland Browns.
The Patriots piled up 225 yards rushing (100 from Corey Dillon), 201 yards receiving (74 from David Patten), got a special teams touchdown before the game was 15 seconds old, and were facing a rookie quarterback on a team whose coach and executive vice president resigned during the week.
The Patriots are now 11-1, continuing the best start in franchise history, and have won 26 of their last 27 games.
The speedy Bethel Johnson took heed of coach Bill Belichick’s message during the week when the coach impressed on the young returner the need to grab momentum early. Evidently, Johnson was all ears, and then he was all legs.
Johnson found an opening near the 20-yard line on the opening kickoff, made a nice cut to the right, and busted loose 93 yards to paydirt, shutting up the Dawg Pound.
“I don’t know about quieting them, but the thing I was trying to do was worry about the emotion on our side,” Johnson said. “We were coming into a hostile environment in an AFC game. I’d been close to breaking one a few times, and I know it’s frustrating not to be able to do it, but we got good blocking up front, I found a seam and ran it.”
The Browns are so bad that by the time Adam Vinatieri nailed the 42d point following a 44-yard Tom Brady-to-Patten touchdown, it marked the 100th point the Browns had given up in two weeks.
“All I know is that I’m having a lot of fun right now,” said Troy Brown, who shadowed slot receiver Dennis Northcutt and came up with his second interception of the season - and career - in the fourth quarter. “I think the thing we always keep in mind as a team is that it doesn’t matter what the score is, or what the team’s record is we’re playing, if you let your guard down, you’re going to get beat. You have to play all-out all of the time.
“It’s all mental toughness,” Brown added. “It’s hard to keep that up for an entire season and the teams that can do that are the teams who have a chance to win it all at the end.”
Dillon earned his total on 18 carries and scored two touchdowns, but he left the game with a leg injury in the second quarter. Knowing he was 2 yards shy of 100, he campaigned to get back in and got his wish with a 2-yard carry to reach the century mark.
The Patriots ran it a season-high 50 times, also utilizing Kevin Faulk, who gained 87 yards on 13 carries and rookie Cedric Cobbs, who ran for 29 yards on 16 carries.
The Patriots controlled the ball for 39:08, while the Browns were held to 46 yards rushing as rookie quarterback Luke McCown was riddled with blitzes in the second half and sacked three times. He managed 277 yards with two TD passes and two interceptions in his debut.
Randall Gay picked up a William Green fumble (forced by Richard Seymour) and raced 41 yards for a score with 13:27 remaining in the third quarter, making it 28-7 after the Browns had pulled within two touchdowns on Antonio Bryant’s 16-yard catch late in the first half.
The Patriots scored in every phase of the game.
“That’s what we needed,” said Brady, who completed 11 of 20 passes for 157 yards, a touchdown, and an interception before giving way to Rohan Davey with 1:56 remaining in the third quarter. “We were looking for a big play to start the game and Bethel provided that for us. Our secondary made big plays. `Blue’ [Gay’s nickname] had a great game. It was a total team effort.”
The Browns, who are going nowhere this season, are committed to starting McCown the rest of the way - even though Jeff Garcia has been upgraded to probable with a shoulder sprain.
When the game was still close early, McCown made some critical mistakes.
Dillon fumbled at his 32, but McCown threw into double coverage and Rodney Harrison made an acrobatic pick at the 5-yard line. The Patriots made McCown pay for that gaffe, churning out a 12-play, 95-yard drive on which Dillon ground up 42 yards and capped it with a 4-yard run with 16 seconds to go in the first quarter, giving New England the 14-0 lead.
After the kickoff the Browns marched to the Patriots’ 29, where they faced a fourth and 5. New coach Terry Robiskie decided to go for it, but McCown managed only a 2-yard completion to Northcutt, halting the drive.
The Browns were penalized 39 yards for pass interference, giving the Patriots a first-and-goal at the 5-yard line. Dillon capped the drive with a 1-yard plunge.
The Browns followed by putting together an 11-play, 70-yard drive in their 2-minute offense, and that was when McCown looked his best. His connection with Bryant was fluky when the ball hit off Frisman Jackson’s hands and eluded Brown, who was defending, falling into Bryant’s hands.
The second half was all Patriots. Sandwiched between the Gay and Patten touchdowns was a 10-yard scoring jaunt from Faulk. Belichick and his staff didn’t let up, even with a 35-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. They blitzed McCown for three straight sacks, while Davey also put the ball in the air six times, which rubbed some of the Browns the wrong way.
Brady, who felt he “missed a lot of plays,” looked sharp on the scoring strike to Patten. That TD was set up by safety Dexter Reid, whose hard hit forced a fumble by Cleveland’s Steve Heiden that was recovered by Eugene Wilson.
Brady had trouble gripping the ball all day, and alternated between wearing a glove and going barehanded. Brady didn’t seem to have a problem on the Patten throw, however, although he gave most of the credit to his receiver. “I just laid it up there and David did the rest,” said Brady.