FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots’ defense had done its job — again — stunting a solid, sustained Cleveland drive to open the second half of Sunday’s chilly, rain-soaked football game and holding the Browns to a field goal. But 3 points are still 3 points, and they were enough to pull the Browns with a touchdown of the heavily favored home team, enough to send a jolt through a Gillette Stadium crowd that had seen its soggy evening start out so spectacularly well.
In a first quarter of Brownsing that was epic even by the Browns’ perennial standard of football folly, the Patriots were all but gifted a three-score lead, Cleveland turning the ball over on three consecutive snaps. Three consecutive snaps that turned into two fumbles and an interception that turned into 14 Patriot points and a 17-0 lead. While Cleveland’s impressive talent pool on offense, featuring Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb (one as deep as any the Patriots have faced this season) was taking turns pulling their offense under, the Patriots’ defense was reaping the rewards the same way it has all season, either scoring points on its own or handing the ball to the offense with great field position.
And early on, this game was following that Patriot script.
But here, with 8:33 to play in the third quarter and the lead down to 17-10, things weren’t nearly so secure. And it was time for the offense to lock it up. With the ball on their own 16-yard line and with the Browns right back in the game, everyone in the building knew it time for the offense to step up in the way the defense had all day (and all season).
Seven plays and 84 yards later, they’d done just that, a 14-yard Tom Brady to Julian Edelman touchdown that shut the Browns down for good, putting more than enough distance on the scoreboard to assure victory, which the now 8-0 Patriots earned by a final of 27-13.
“Yeah, that was something that we wanted to do, to go out and answer,” Edelman said. “To start the second half better than we have. That’s what we did.”
On that drive, that’s what HE did.
Because when the Patriots need something from their offense, they know where to turn. For all the frustration the unit has admitted to feeling at times this season, missing the big body of retired Rob Gronkowski, struggling for familiarity with the revolving door of receivers such as Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon, Demaryius Thomas, or Braxton Berrios, pining for the health of injured offensive linemen like Isaiah Wynn and David Andrews, they still have Edelman. And they still have James White.
And they still have Brady.
Together, they engineered the pivotal drive of the game. Brady opened by aiming left for rookie Jakobi Meyers. Incomplete. Then he went right aiming for his newest receiving option, midweek trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu. Incomplete. Then, on third down and still buried deep in his own end of the field, Brady found White on a short screen. White did the rest, running straight up the field and then cutting left, finally brought down after 59 yards.
“We need every yard we can get out there, it was a great call by Josh [McDaniels] and great execution by the O-line, and James is a great screen runner,” Brady said. “Just a great play. Good timing.”
Another incompletion to Brandon Bolden, followed by a 9-yard pass to Rex Burkhead and a 2-yard third-and-1 run by Sony Michel and Brady was ready to find his favorite target of them all.
With pressure coming from his right and his pocket collapsing, he moved swiftly aside, hit Edelman just in front of the goal line, and watched as the receiver slipped into the end zone. Two-touchdown lead. Game over.
“I just try to get open, that’s all I do,” Edelman said. “I saw some space open, caught it, and tried to get in. Tom has great pocket presence man. The guy’s been doing it a long time. He’s a beast.”
Said Brady: “I haven’t had quite as many of those [touchdown passes on the run], but it was good. Jules found a little sweet spot in there and I’m glad I was able to get it to him.”
Of course the offense wants more, and with Baltimore looming next Sunday night and Philadelphia kicking off the real meat of the schedule following the bye week, it felt like Sunday’s second half might have unlocked the vault a bit. When the Patriots added their final points of the day on a fourth-quarter field goal drive, Brady started it by finding Sanu for 19 yards. He found Meyers for 5, and he hit reclaimed tight end Ben Watson for 26. The throws to Sanu and Watson were particularly notable, hitting both players in stride, like a tease of what still could come from two players who are still acclimating to the offense.
“Tom put it on the money. I had to catch it in self-defense,” Sanu said.
Watson, the veteran who was here at the start of the season, was released and then re-signed to the team he was also a part of from 2004-09, knows what Sanu was feeling. His own catch was made in tight coverage.
“Everyone will say that was a good catch, but it was a good throw,” Watson said. “He put it in a spot where I only I could get to it. Whenever you are in man and you are going down a seam like that, that is the place you can put it. He is the best at putting it in a great way for the receiver to get to it. When I saw it up there I knew I had a chance at it.”