The Patriots need two things to happen Sunday for them to clinch the AFC East title outright for the fifth straight season, and 10th time in 11 years: beat Cleveland at Gillette Stadium, and have the Dolphins lose at Pittsburgh.
Owning a three-game lead over Miami with four games left, the Patriots would clinch at least a share of the division title simply by knocking off the Browns.
Hat-and-T-shirt games always hold special meaning for the Patriots, but usually after the fact. Before the game, coach Bill Belichick said, the focus needs to be elsewhere.
“We’re not talking too much about that,” Belichick said Tuesday during the weekly coaches’ teleconference. “The only thing we can really control is how we play against Cleveland, and that’s really what we need to focus on.
“Whatever else does or doesn’t happen in the league is definitely, totally outside of our control. Right now we’re just trying to focus on improving, getting ready for the Browns, a team that we don’t know very well.”
The Patriots last faced the Browns three seasons ago, when Cleveland handed their visitors a 34-14 upset loss. This year’s Browns are 4-8, sitting in last place in the AFC North. But they have wideout Josh Gordon, who has combined for 498 receiving yards the past two games (237 against Pittsburgh, then 261 against Jacksonville). The Browns lost both games, but Gordon became the first player in NFL history to have back-to-back 200-yard receiving games.
One player the Patriots won’t have to game plan for is quarterback Brian Hoyer, a native of the Cleveland area who joined the Browns this year and played well before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 5. Hoyer served as Tom Brady’s backup for three years (2009-11) in Foxborough.
“We obviously wish him the best,” said Belichick. “He got an opportunity, went in there and made the most of it, then unfortunately suffered an injury.
“Whether it’s [former Patriots quarterback] Matt [Cassel] or Brian, as long as it doesn’t hurt us, I’m always rooting for them, and many of our other players around the league that have done well that were good Patriots players during their time here.
“In Brian’s case, I know his recovery is coming along well and hopefully it will continue that way and he’ll have another opportunity. He’s a great kid who works hard, certainly has paid his dues along the way.”
After giving up an average of 14 points through the first five games, the Patriots are allowing opponents nearly twice that — 27.2 — over the last seven games. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was asked if the defense has flat-lined or regressed over that stretch.
“We don’t really look at it that way,” said Patricia. “We’re certainly trying to be better than we were the week before, that’s really what we’re trying to strive to do. Our guys work extremely hard, and I don’t think those would be the words that I would use to describe anything that we’re trying to do.”
One area Patricia was happy to discuss was the second-half defensive efforts the past two weeks. The Patriots held the Broncos to 7 points after halftime two weeks ago on eight drives. On Sunday, the Texans scored 14 points off six possessions.
“I think the guys have done an excellent job with the in-game adjustments and just really trying to identify the game itself and what has transpired through the first half, and to go out in the second half and make adjustments according to what we’re kind of seeing out on the field,” Patricia said.
“I think that’s a credit to the players and their ability to be able to change and then also just improve on the specific things that we are doing that are not different than what we did in the first half, and recognizing maybe the mistakes that were made and the problem areas and then fixing those. That’s definitely helped us here over the last two weeks.”
Conversely, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was asked about the recent slow starts.
The Patriots have been forced to overcome halftime deficits the past two games: 24-0 to Denver and 17-7 on Sunday at Houston.
“I think it comes down to coaching and playing well, whatever quarter you’re talking about,” said McDaniels. “If we can do those things in the third quarter or the second quarter, the fourth quarter, we can certainly do them in the first quarter.
“I think it is definitely going to be a point of emphasis for us every week. It always is. It’s an important aspect of the game in the NFL, to try and get out in front and start well.
“We just need to be prepared and ready to go in the beginning of the game and just try to execute a little bit better.”
Team owner Robert Kraft and six Patriots players were at Elm Street School in Walpole Tuesday to present the school with a $10,000 check for health and wellness programs and playground equipment as part of the NFL’s Play 60 campaign, which encourages children to be active for at least 60 minutes a day.
Elm Street was selected from among dozens of schools in New England.
In addition to presenting the check, the players — Danny Amendola, Devin McCourty, Ryan Mallett, Matthew Slater, Duron Harmon, and Ryan Allen — participated in fitness activities with students.
“It actually is invigorating to come here and see these kids and their enthusiasm,” Kraft said. “You look at obesity and think about what a cost to society when kids at a young age get out of shape.
“I’m very proud of the NFL and the Play 60 program, really proud of our efforts in that area.”