Welcome to Season 10, Episode 10 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
The Patriots last played the Browns a little more than two years ago, in Week 8 of the 2019 season. A glance at the box score from that game is one more confirmation of how fast rosters, circumstances, perceptions, and expectations can change in the NFL.
Tom Brady threw a pair of touchdown passes to Julian Edelman. Mohamed Sanu had five targets for the Patriots, while Odell Beckham Jr. had seven for the Browns. Mike Nugent, the rickety bridge between Stephen Gostkowski and Nick Folk, drilled a pair of field goals. The Patriots won, 27-13, to improve to 8-0. The Browns dropped to 2-5.
Two years ago, and it might as well be a lifetime. When the teams meet again Sunday, the outcome should have playoff implications even with the new 17-game schedule just past the midway point.
The Browns are 5-4, coming off a surprising 41-16 rout of the Bengals in which quarterback Baker Mayfield delivered his best performance of the season (14 of 21, 218 yards, two touchdowns without a turnover). The Browns appeared carefree and enjoyed welcome catharsis in that win after the franchise parted ways with the underachieving Beckham.
The Patriots, too, are 5-4, having won three in a row for the first time since that 8-0 start in 2019. During the winning streak, they have found a formula that tends to be sustainable as the weather gets colder and the games get bigger: run the ball with authority (they averaged 147 rushing yards per game in wins over the Jets, Chargers, and Panthers) and take away what the opposing offense does best (they’ve allowed an average of 14.3 points per game in the three wins).
The Patriots are going to have to make adjustments to that formula this week. Running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson suffered concussions late in last Sunday’s win over the Panthers, and Harris has been ruled out, leaving the Patriots short in the backfield against the Browns’ third-ranked run defense, which allows just 84.8 yards per game.
Quarterback Mac Jones’s rookie season has been beyond encouraging (2,135 passing yards, 10 touchdowns, 7 interceptions), but he has had a couple of hiccups in recent weeks, including completing just one pass in five attempts in the second half against the Panthers.
He is going to need to make plays in the passing game against the Browns. (Perhaps this is the week to get Jonnu Smith and/or Nelson Agholor more involved?) It’s also imperative that the offense eliminates the exasperating undisciplined mistakes that has plagued it, such as Jones’s two delay of game penalties last week.
In terms of the running game, the Browns, who rank first at 160.2 yards per game, are shorthanded, too. Nick Chubb and Demetric Felton are in COVID-19 protocol, while Kareem Hunt is still sidelined with a calf injury.
Chubb has been a monster, rushing for 721 yards (third in the league behind Tennessee’s injured workhorse Derrick Henry and Indianapolis’s Jonathan Taylor) at 6.0 yards per pop. OK, all right, fine: The Patriots should have taken him over Georgia backfield partner Sony Michel in the 2018 draft.
Kick it off, Bailey (or maybe Folk), and let’s get this thing started …
Three players I’ll be watching other than the QBs
J.C. Jackson: The fourth-year cornerback is the definition of a ballhawk. After picking off the Panthers’ hapless Sam Darnold twice last week, he has 22 interceptions in 54 career regular-season games, tying him with Asante Samuel for 11th in franchise history — and Samuel needed 75 games to hit that number. Jackson has had four two-interception games, doing it in 2019 against Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and Buffalo’s Josh Allen, and then this year with Darnold and his successor with the Jets, Zach Wilson. Of all of the players ahead of Jackson on the Patriots interceptions list (Ty Law and Raymond Clayborn are tied at the top with 36), no one had a touchdown return longer than Jackson’s 88-yard jaunt against the Panthers. If he is going to add to his pick collection Sunday, it will probably occur while in coverage against speedy Donovan Peoples-Jones, who is averaging 21.3 yards per catch (20.9 this season) in his two-year career and no longer has the unproductive Beckham competing for targets. Jackson should be up for the challenge. He’s been a lockdown defender this year even when he doesn’t come up with an interception — he leads the NFL with 12 passes defensed.
D’Ernest Johnson: With Chubb out — his third missed game of the season — the Browns have a capable fill-in in Johnson. A third-year back who went undrafted out of South Florida, Johnson had 187 career rushing yards entering this season. He has surpassed that already in 2021, with 195, including 146 on 22 carries in the Week 7 win over the Broncos in his only career start. He’s had just 13 touches for 45 yards over the past two weeks with Chubb back in the lineup, but he still contributed a rushing touchdown two weeks ago in a 15-10 loss to the Steelers. Johnson has had one game in which he had a real opportunity to thrive in the NFL, and he seized it. The Patriots, who have the league’s 14th-ranked run defense (108.9 yards per game), catch a break with Chubb out, but perhaps not as big of a break as it seems.
Denzel Ward: Jackson’s 88-yard interception return actually wasn’t the longest in the league last week. That distinction went to Ward, who returned a Joe Burrow pass 99 yards for the tone-setting first touchdown of the win over the Bengals. Ward, the No. 4 pick in the 2018 draft (three spots behind Mayfield and one behind Darnold), hasn’t quite validated his draft position yet, with Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander the one cornerback outperforming him from that draft class based on pro-football-reference’s career value metric. But he is trending in the right direction for the Browns’ 9th-ranked pass defense (224.9 yards per game), and Jones had better be certain his target is in the clear before he throws the ball in Ward’s vicinity.
Grievance of the week
I couldn’t decide whom to dislike more during a certain pivotal moment in Monday night’s Bears-Steelers game: official Tony Corrente, who looked like the James Harden of NFL zebras with his egregious attempt to draw contact on Bears linebacker Cassius Marsh before dramatically flagging him for taunting; or Marsh, who as a 2017 Patriot played like a less-effective version of Monty Beisel and dresses like he is the three-time winner of worst “Game of Thrones” costume at Comic-Con. Hearty boos to both of them.
Patriots tackle Isaiah Wynn vs. Browns defensive end Myles Garrett
We can all agree that the Patriots’ Matthew Judon has had a phenomenal, Andre Tippett-like half-season, right? Right. With those red sleeves flapping and flashing, Judon looks like he is everywhere on the field at once, and his stats suggest he is. Per Pro Football Focus, Judon has 43 quarterback pressures, and his conventional stats include 9 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, and 16 quarterback hits.
Impressive stuff. It might even be Defensive Player of the Year candidate stuff in a world in which Myles Garrett chose to become a chef, or a bank executive, or a Zamboni driver, or pretty much anything other than what he is: the most imposing and impressive defensive player in the NFL.
Garrett has 48 pressures — five more than Judon, and two behind league leader Maxx Crosby of the Raiders, per PFF. He leads the NFL with 12 sacks — including 4½ in Week 3 against the Bears — while accumulating 23 QB hits, and a league-best 12 tackles for loss.
The no-brainer No. 1 pick in 2017, Garrett has become everything a team hopes to get when it has its pick of everyone on the draft board. Yes, he had some maturity issues along the way, including a shameful episode in 2019, receiving an indefinite suspension for clubbing Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph in the head with his own helmet. He was reinstated for the 2020 season, made first-team All-Pro, and carries himself now like a genuine leader.
Garrett almost always lines up over the left tackle, which means Isaiah Wynn had better play his best game of the season by far. The Patriots line has protected Jones better in recent weeks, but he did cough up a fumble last week after the Panthers’ Brian Burns blew past Hunter Henry and Wynn, and buried the quarterback from the blind side.
Garrett has been dealing with an ankle injury, but he expects to play. Garrett on one good wheel is better than most of the defensive ends the Patriots will face this season.
Prediction, or you’ve got to like the Patriots’ chances … unless the Browns sign Peyton Hillis
After the 2-4 start and close-but-not-quite losses to the Dolphins (regrettable for sure), Saints, Buccaneers, and Cowboys — not to mention all sorts of yelped nonsense about whether Bill Belichick has lost his touch — these have been a fun and encouraging couple of weeks. After a year-plus of struggling, rebuilding, and adjusting to post-Brady life, the Patriots have looked the part of a high-quality team in the wins over the Chargers and Panthers, in particular. In many ways, they looked familiar.
Now it’s time for further confirmation. The Browns have the same record as the Patriots. They may be dealing with similar attrition Sunday at certain positions. Popular Pro Bowl guard Wyatt Teller got a new contract. And they’re feeling good about themselves after shedding Beckham and blasting the Bengals last week.
Until the Bengals throttling, the Browns had been in a similar spot to the Patriots. They’d won the games they were supposed to, but couldn’t quite get that definitive victory announcing that they were to be taken seriously, losing to the Chargers by 5, the Chiefs (in Week 1, back when they were good) by 4, and getting routed by the Cardinals in a 23-point loss. They needed that win over the Bengals.
Well, the Patriots need this win: To prove that Jones can put points on the board against a fierce defense, to show that the next-man-up mantra still applies, and to confirm what we think we’ve seen recently is true. I believe in this Patriots team. After Sunday, there’s going to be a lot more company. Patriots 24, Browns 19.