FOXBOROUGH - It was a day of firsts for the Patriots. Rodney Harrison’s first game back after returning from a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs, Benjamin Watson’s first career 100-yard receiving effort, Donte’ Stallworth’s first touchdown as a Patriot, the first time Randy Moss failed to rack up 100 receiving yards in a New England uniform.
It was also the first time this season New England looked beatable. The Patriots’ pursuit of perfection remains intact, but by their own admission their play was anything but in a perfunctory 34-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns yesterday in front of 68,756 fans at Gillette Stadium.
Aided by an opportunistic defense that forced four turnovers - three interceptions and a fourth-quarter fumble that was returned for a 15-yard touchdown by Randall Gay - the Patriots (5-0) ruined the homecoming of former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, now the Browns coach, and former linebacker Willie McGinest, now an elder in the Cleveland locker room.
But the talk in the Patriots’ locker room was about worst, not firsts.
"We played our worst game of the year. I don’t know if I should say that, but it’s the truth," said Stallworth, who had four catches for 65 yards and a 34-yard touchdown in the first quarter. "There are a lot of things that we can go and correct, and we’re going to look at the film and see what we can do to get ourselves better and try to move on because the mistakes we made today we can’t make next week."
That was hard for the Browns to believe, considering they were in a 20-0 hole at halftime and lucky it wasn’t worse, as the Patriots twice had to settle for a pair of short field goals from Stephen Gostkowski, a 20-yarder on their inaugural drive and a 25-yarder in the second quarter.
"I’d hate to see their `A’ game, if that’s not their `A’ game," said Cleveland tight end Kellen Winslow.
The Patriots put up 34 points, but the offense wasn’t clicking against Cleveland. Chris Hanson, who had punted five times all year entering yesterday’s game, punted six times.
Determined not to let Randy Moss beat them, the Browns doubled Tom Brady’s new favorite target, holding him to three catches for 46 yards.
"Moss has been killing people and we didn’t want him to kill us," said Crennel. "So, we died by the hands of somebody else."
Those would be the mitts of Watson that struck down the Browns (2-3).
Watson had the best day of his career, six catches for 107 yards and two touchdowns, including a 25-yarder in the fourth quarter that put the Patriots ahead, 27-10, with 9:40 left in the game, after Cleveland had cut the Patriots’ lead to 20-10.
That score came one play after Sammy Morris, who had his second straight 100-yard rushing effort (21 rushes for 102 yards) while filling in for an injured Laurence Maroney, converted a fourth and inches at the Cleveland 29.
"That was a big drive," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "We needed that drive. We really didn’t move the ball at all in the third quarter. We needed to advance it with something and that was big."
Cleveland got on the board in the third quarter on a 42-yard Phil Dawson field goal, and after the Patriots’ offense sputtered with a pair of three-and-outs, the Browns cut the lead to 10 early in the fourth on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Derek Anderson to Tim Carter, who was open after Randall Gay slipped and fell.
Gay also was beaten by Winslow for a 14-yard touchdown in the fourth, after Watson’s second score.
Watson’s first TD reception, a 7-yarder just 1:01 before halftime, was set up by a Junior Seau interception, his second of the game. The 38-year-old linebacker had his first two-INT game since 1996, and it showed when he inexplicably raised his arms over his head with the ball in his hands in the middle of the field while running back the second one.
Seau’s first interception came on Cleveland’s first possession and delivered yet another first - the Patriots’ first red zone stop of the year. On third and goal from the 1, Asante Samuel deflected an Anderson pass, which Seau snatched out of the air. Before that, teams had been 6 for 6 (six touchdowns in six tries), against the Patriots in the red zone.
Samuel grabbed an interception of his own on Anderson’s very next pass. Adalius Thomas tipped a ball intended for Joe Jurevicius and Samuel snagged it for his third pick in three games. Eleven seconds later, the Patriots had a 10-0 lead and Stallworth had his first touchdown as a Patriot.
"Any time you can get the ball to Brady and the offense, it’s a lethal weapon," said linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. "So, we try to do it as much as we can."
The Patriots generated 21 points off Cleveland miscues, which picked up a misfiring New England offense.
"I think the execution just wasn’t as good as we would have liked," said Brady, who was 22 of 38 for 265 yards without an interception.
Still, that didn’t stop Brady from adding to his NFL-leading touchdown pass total. Tossing three more TDs yesterday, Tom Terrific tied Steve Young’s NFL record, set in 1998, of starting the season with five games with at least three touchdown passes. He now has 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions on the season.
After surviving a short week, the Patriots now can look ahead to a showdown in Irving, Texas, with the Dallas Cowboys, but first things first. They have to pick up their play.
"I know what we did [yesterday] is not going to get it done, from a players’ point of view, a coaches’ point of view," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs.