When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough
When the Patriots run
Bill Belichick insisted he was not sending a message to fumble-prone No. 1 back Stevan Ridley by sitting him last week. It’s a safe bet the 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder got the message anyway. Whether it sinks in, we’ll find out as soon as Sunday. When focused, Ridley is among the better tailbacks in the NFL. He has averaged 4.5 yards on more than 500 totes over two-plus seasons. Ridley is a tough, north-south runner who is most comfortable exploding through inside creases and taking on defenders. Brandon Bolden (5-11, 220) lacks first-step quickness, too often gets hit in the backfield, and despite his build won’t break many tackles. He’s much better in space and is effective on screens. Shane Vereen (5-10, 205) has excellent quickness and vision. He lacks bell-cow bulk but is versatile. LeGarrette Blount (6-0, 250) is a big, bruising, no-nonsense runner who excels at violently crashing into defenders of any size. Fullback James Develin (6-3, 251) showed just how determined a runner he can be when he carried a host of Texans into the end zone last week. The Browns’ defense is anchored by behemoth nose man Phil Taylor (6-3, 335), who can control the running game with bulk, quickness, and strong hands. He is backed up by active inside linebackers Craig Robertson and D’Qwell Jackson. Robertson is quick and instinctive, while Jackson is a thunderous hitter with sideline-to-sideline quickness.
New England offense: 122.8 (12th)
Cleveland defense: 98.9 (fifth)
When the Patriots pass
Another week, another mad scramble to put together a full complement of receivers. Doesn’t matter. With the way Tom Brady is playing, you could throw Chad Johnson and Chad Jackson out there and he’d make them look good. Maybe. Julian Edelman may not be Wes Welker but he clearly has Brady’s trust. Edelman combines quick feet, excellent route running, and fearlessness to make plays. He still drops some catchable balls but he hits more plays than he misses. Danny Amendola has many of the same qualities as Edelman, with a touch more speed. Both Edelman and Amendola absorb some big hits but they never shy away from the ball or contact. Sure-handed Austin Collie is a slightly bigger version of Edelman and Amendola. All three can line are most effective in the short to intermediate game. Rob Gronkowski gives the Patriots their best chance to stretch the field. The big tight end generally gets a clean break off the snap and will chug down the seam and snag Brady’s offerings before rumbling over defenders. Cleveland’s secondary is loaded with playmakers, led by cornerback Joe Haden, an exceptional athlete who has the strength to press and the quickness to cover deep. Fellow corner Buster Skrine has impressive closing speed. Strong safety T.J. Ward is a big hitter with great instincts and good cover skills. Free safety Tashaun Gipson has corner cover skills and gets his nose in on a ton of tackles.
Passing yards per game
New England offense: 255.0 (10th)
Cleveland defense: 207.8 (fifth)
When the Browns run
Something has to give here, as an anemic rushing attack faces a porous run defense. Willis McGahee gets most of the chances for Cleveland. The 6-foot, 235-pounder was once one of the NFL’s elite — but that was many miles ago. McGahee no longer possesses his trademark first-step quickness and explosiveness to the hole, but he is still a punishing, physical runner. He has the strength to push the pile in short yardage. Fozzy Whittaker (5-9, 202) is a nifty little change-of-pace back with a cute name. He has straight-line speed but lacks elusiveness and power. Fullback Chris Ogbonnaya won’t get a lot of carries, but the 6-foot, 225-pounder is pretty quick and nimble for a man his size and will break off a chunk gain now and again. There’s a lot of beef in Cleveland’s interior three. Alex Mack (6-4, 311) is a powerful, athletic center who plays to the whistle. Left guard John Greco (6-5, 315) is a mauler, while right guard Shawn Lauvao (6-3, 315) is quick off the ball and delivers a nice initial punch. New England rookie defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones work hard but too often get pushed around, which creates big running lanes. Instinctive inside linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher have stepped up and filled some of those lanes but Dont’a Hightower goes missing for long stretches. Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are exceptional in pursuit and never give up on a play.
Rushing yards per game
Cleveland offense: 82.3 (28th)
New England defense: 138.2 (31st)
When the Browns pass
The Browns’ quarterback situation is a mess. The position has been a revolving door because of injuries and inconsistency. As it stands, the current depth chart (Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden, Alex Tanney, and Caleb Hanie) is enough to make Mel Kiper Jr. shiver. Campbell has been cleared to start after a Nov. 24 concussion. A decent athlete, the 6-5, 230-pounder looks every bit the part of an NFL quarterback. However, the former first-rounder rarely played like one during previous stops in Washington, Oakland, and Chicago. Campbell has a big arm and throws tight spirals, but he isn’t the most accurate passer and is a poor decision-maker. Josh Gordon is one of the league’s great weapons. He has tremendous size, speed, and hands. Greg Little (6-2, 220) is another playmaker. He has long arms, big hands, and doesn’t mind getting physical. He is excellent after the catch (he played some running back in college) is a willing downfield blocker. Davone Bess (5-10, 193) is an effective slot receiver, combining quickness and strong hands to move the ball. He’s had some of his best moments against the Patriots. New England’s secondary has been very good — despite injuries to some and inconsistent play by others. Expect Aqib Talib to match up with Gordon a lot. Fellow corners Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington will make plays. Safety Devin McCourty has been the glue that’s held this defense together.
Passing yards per game
Cleveland offense: 249.9 (12th)
New England defense: 224 (10th)
Browns’ key player: Josh Gordon
An absolute speed burner — “Flash” isn’t just a nickname, it’s an apt description — Gordon has been turning heads and cornerbacks all season. He may be the best receiver in the league not named Calvin Johnson.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: With speed, size, and toughness. The 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound Gordon explodes off the line and has awesome acceleration. He tracks balls well, has strong hands, and is great after the catch.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: By jamming him at the line. It’s imperative to disrupt his timing before he gets into his routes (he can get sloppy). Corners have to give him a smack within 5 yards before passing him off to the safeties.
BROWNS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Ground rules: With suspect quarterback play, establishing a ground game is imperative — it won’t be that hard against these Patriots.
2. It takes a thief: Though the Browns defense has been solid, it has failed to create turnovers consistently (minus-9 differential). A few today could keep this one close.
3. Settling in: No matter who’s taking the snaps, it’s important to give them some easy throws to build their confidence. It’s the only way the visitors have a fighting chance.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Difficult task: Barkevious Mingo isn’t just hard to pronounce — he’s hard to block. But you’d better, or this rookie linebacker will pummel Tom Brady.
2. Uncomfort zone: Sackmeisters Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich have to send a message to Jason Campbell that he’s in for a long, cold day.
3. First things first: You can only start slow for so long before it’s going to come back to haunt you. The offense needs to start fast, get the lead, and cruise from there.
Patriots 37, Browns 10
Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.