Welcome to Season 8, Episode 8 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
Be honest: Did you buy the Cleveland Browns hype at the start of the season? I was skeptical — the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry with the headline “The Browns Are Back” was a little much. It reminded me of the last time SI wanted to give the Cleveland sports scene some affirmation and declared in its 1987 baseball preview edition that the Indians would go to the World Series. The 1987 Indians lost 101 games.
The buzz about the Browns isn’t quite that ridiculous. But as they drag a 2-4 record to Foxborough to face the 7-0 Patriots Sunday, it’s clear that giving them the cover-boy glory was premature. A lot went right for the Browns last year, at least by their standards. Brash (obnoxious is an acceptable synonym) quarterback Baker Mayfield threw a rookie-record 27 touchdown passes. Nick Chubb set a franchise record for rushing yards by a rookie (996), which is pretty impressive considering that Jim Brown was once a Browns rookie running back. They won five of their last seven games and finished 7-8-1, a huge leap forward after going 1-31 over the previous two seasons.
This season, the Cleveland Cover Boys have regressed, despite acquiring Beckham and defensive linemen Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson in the offseason. Mayfield has thrown a league-high 11 interceptions. Last season, they ranked 20th in points and 21st in points allowed in the entire league. This season, they’re 23d and 22d, and their point differential (minus-34) is worse than it was over the whole season last year (minus-33).
Coming off the bye week, there’s still a chance for the Browns to salvage this season. But one lesson should have been learned already, and it’s one the Patriots can help emphasize this week. It’s not about being on the cover at the start of the season. It’s about being on the cover when it ends.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started . . .
THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY
Myles Garrett — On Oct. 16, Garrett, the Browns’ 6-foot-4-inch, 270-pound defensive end/block of granite, tweeted that a fan jumped out of a car to request a picture, then punched him in the face and ran off. Good thing for the “fan” that Garrett decided not to pursue him. Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, is extremely adept at running down his target, as just about any NFL quarterback he has faced can confirm. In 33 career games, Garrett has collected 29½ sacks, including nine in six games this year. He is a great player, a franchise cornerstone, at age 23, and he’s up against a Patriots offensive line that is dealing with some stuff. Ted Karras is competent, if nothing more, as David Andrews’s replacement. Guard Shaq Mason showed up on the injury report this week. And left tackle Marshall Newhouse is what in baseball they call “replacement level.” Patriots coach Bill Belichick made the Patriots’ task in dealing with Garrett rather clear when talking to the media this week, calling him “pretty much impossible” to block. “Got great power and explosion,” Belichick said. “Good get off. Very athletic. He is blocked, but then he does not stay blocked. He comes free quickly and escapes and gets off blocks. Plays with a lot of power. He is certainly not a finesse player. He is a very explosive, powerful guy that is also athletic enough to do very rare things. He can close ground in a hurry and get off blocks with his strength, quickness, explosiveness, and instincts. He is a smart player. Finds the ball and finds it quickly. He impacts the game defensively. Better be able to handle on their play or he can ruin a game for you.” Geez, that’s the kind of high praise usually reserved for those Friday afternoon flashbacks when he gets a question about Lawrence Taylor and the 1986 and ’90 Giants defenses.
Jarvis Landry — Garrett made a tongue-in-cheek reference to wanting to make Tom Brady “see ghosts” this weeks, a reference to quarterback Sam Darnold’s in-game comment aired by ESPN in the middle of the Jets’ dismantling by the Patriots Monday night. It was a good line . . . but even mild comments like that tend to end up as useful bulletin-board material for the Patriots, who have had an incredible knack since the days of Rodney “No One Believed in Us” Harrison for using any real or perceived slight as fuel. Well, Landry gave the Patriots a tanker truck’s worth of fuel Thursday when, perhaps accidentally but definitely foolishly, he guaranteed a win over the Patriots before backtracking: “Well, we’re gonna win. We’re gonna win. It’s just that simple. We’re getting guys back healthy again, and we’re gonna win.” Landry quickly clarified that he meant the Browns were going “to go there to win,’’ which is a semantics game not much different than claiming to be the assistant regional manager when you really meant to say you’re the assistant to the regional manager. It was far too late for clarifications. Social media is too quick to allow for backtracking or too hungry for a juicy headline to allow for elaboration. Landry has been a productive player against the Patriots in the past — the former Dolphin has 55 catches for 569 yards and 3 touchdowns in eight games versus New England — but he’s slapped a bull’s-eye on his own jersey this week. He might as well be Freddie Mitchell.
Mohamed Sanu — It’s wild how the Patriots’ wide receiver situation has shifted and evolved this season. If Josh Gordon ends up getting released at some point as expected, the Patriots will have parted ways with him, Antonio Brown, and Demaryius Thomas — a trio that has combined for 1,781 receptions, 24,856 receiving yards, and 157 receiving touchdowns in their careers — before the season is even half over. Sanu, an eight-year veteran who was traded by the Falcons to the Patriots Tuesday for a 2020 second-round pick, is not a player of that magnitude, but he is an ideal fit for what the Patriots need right now. He’s an accomplished slot receiver who also has a knack for getting open on other assorted short routes, rarely drops the ball (just one this year), and has drawn comparisons to early-dynasty Patriot receiver David Givens for his toughness and competitiveness. He should be a nice complement to Julian Edelman, and they have something else in their skill sets that is similar besides their ability to get free from the slot. Sanu, like Edelman, is a former quarterback who can really throw the ball. He’s 7 for 8 passing in his career for 233 yards, four touchdowns, and a perfect 158.3 rating. Josh McDaniels has to cook up a play for Sanu to let it fly at some point, doesn’t he?
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
I suppose the grievance should be Michael Bennett talking himself out of town after watching his playing time dwindle and getting suspended for a verbal confrontation with assistant coach Bret Bielema. It’s always annoying when a veteran player can’t adjust to a new role with the Patriots. But given Bennett’s history of — let’s call it outspokenness — this can’t come as a surprise. He’ll be a nice fit in Dallas, where the Cowboys play a 4-3 defense and the coach can barely get his players to give him a high-five coming off the field.
So the actual grievance this week isn’t really a grievance so much as it is a bummer. It’s disappointing it’s ending this way as a Patriot for Gordon, who was placed on IR under curious circumstances and by all accounts has played his last game as a Patriot. No, he wasn’t the player he used to be before his well-documented substance-abuse issues cost him so much of his prime — the ol’ Flash Gordon burst just wasn’t there — but he still made the occasional spectacular play (think Week 3, Jets), and it was impressive how quickly he won the faith of Brady. Gordon also was also a very likable personality, introspective and insightful, someone who was easy to pull for, and for myriad reasons. The record shows he played 17 games for the Patriots, with 60 catches for 1,007 yards and 4 TDs. That was a fine contribution. We wish it could have lasted longer, but more than that, we wish Gordon the best in whatever comes next.
Bill Belichick vs. Freddie Kitchens
Under the usual circumstances, this is a player-vs.-player matchup. And if these were the usual circumstances, we’d probably identify Garrett, the Browns’ left defensive end, against Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon (and assorted helpers, plus whomever else Garrett lines up against) as the ones to watch. But the coaching discrepancy in this game is just too huge to ignore.
It is, of course, always an advantage to have Belichick on your team’s sideline, and usually a pretty sizable one. But that’s especially so this week. Consider: He has 268 regular-season wins, which is 266 more than first-year Browns coach Freddie Kitchens. Kitchens, a former Alabama quarterback who nowadays gives off the vibe of the first contestant eliminated from a second-rate cooking show, took the long road to an NFL head coaching job, having spent 11 seasons on the Arizona Cardinals staff, mostly coaching tight ends and quarterbacks under Ken Whisenhunt and Bruce Arians. He’d never been a coordinator until the Browns fired coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley after a 2-5-1 start last year. He was a surprise choice after interim coach Gregg Williams, who led them to a 5-3 record, was not retained. Kitchens has a reputation as a clever offensive mind, but the Browns’ overall performance this year suggests a steep learning curve.
At least he doesn’t have to languish in any shadows. The last Browns coach to win a playoff game was . . . Belichick, in 1994, when he led them to a 20-13 win over Bill Parcells, Drew Bledsoe, and the Patriots in the AFC wild-card game.
The Patriots have the greatest coach in NFL history. The Browns, a franchise that has not won more than seven games since 2007, has not made the playoffs since 2002, and have slightly more than half as many playoff wins as a franchise (16) than Belichick has as Patriots coach (30), have a rookie head coach who is still figuring it out. Freddie’s not ready, and that’s not a matchup so much as it is a mismatch.
PREDICTION, OR WHATEVER BECAME OF TODD PHILCOX?
One of the many mysteries of the Jets’ approach to going at the Patriots’ sensational defense (27 points allowed in seven games) was why Adam Gase kept having the overwhelmed Darnold heave the ball downfield, where those ghosts reside, against a stacked defensive backfield.
If Kitchens puts the ball in Mayfield’s hands to try to beat the Patriots, the Browns will lose, and badly. Mayfield has a passer rating of 66.0 — trailing the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Marcus Mariota, and Mitchell Trubisky, and just ahead of Darnold — and just five touchdown passes to those league-high 11 interceptions. If he needs further humbling, and he probably does, the Patriots’ defense is here for it.
What the Jets should have done is utilize Le’Veon Bell in the passing game; in three of his previous four games against the Patriots, he’d totaled at least 130 combined passing and receiving yards. He had just one reception and 76 total yards Monday.
The Browns need to put this game in Chubb’s hands. He’s having another excellent season as a sophomore (607 yards, 6 TDs, 5.3 yards per carry) and also has 20 receptions, as many as he had as a rookie. The Patriots are second in the NFL in rushing yards allowed, trailing only the Buccaneers, so it’s not exactly a weak point. But the Browns’ lone hope is to control the clock, hope Brady and the Patriots’ offense remains inconsistent, and hope all of that silly bulletin-board material has somehow been forgotten by Sunday. Good luck with that, Freddie.
Patriots 30, Browns 13