The Cleveland Browns spent the last week preparing to face a New England Patriots team that has won two straight games, four of their last five, and carries a three-game lead in the AFC East Division with four to play in the regular season.
Since moving into Gillette Stadium, the site of Sunday’s game, in 2002, the Patriots hold a 22-2 home record in December, and are 46-6 overall in the year’s final month since 2001.
“It’s a great challenge for us,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “We have a group of guys that are competitors, and I know that they’re looking forward to the challenge this week and we’ll be ready for that challenge.
“As you look at New England’s offense, it’s outstanding. Their balance between run and pass has been excellent this year. They’re running the no-huddle, which creates issues, and we have to be ready for it.”
Veteran quarterback Tom Brady is the leader of the Patriots’ offense, and despite missing two of his top targets from 2012, he has managed to again lead the Patriots to a winning season, their 13th straight. On the season, Brady has completed 286 of 471 attempts (60.7 percent) for 3,267 yards and 19 touchdowns against eight interceptions.
“It all starts with Tom Brady, one of the best in the game, one of the best that’s ever played,” Chudzinski said. “It’s amazing how he has new faces and is still able to produce the way he has throughout the course of his career. He’s making plays in critical situations and finding ways to win.”
In his career, Brady has led the Patriots to a 145-42-0 record, is one of five quarterbacks in NFL history to average at least 250 passing yards per game, and one of six to reach 3,000 yards in a season 11 times. Only Brady and New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees have averaged 300 or more yards per game in three seasons.
In addition to the passing statistics, Brady has engineered 40 game-winning drives when the Patriots faced a fourth-quarter deficit or tie.
“In my opinion, Tom Brady is the greatest draft pick in the history of the NFL,” Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton said of the former sixth-round pick. “I know a lot of old names and I wasn’t back there drafting in the old days, but when you look at what Tom Brady has done, from where he came from, I believe he’s the greatest draft pick in the history of football.
“I might go so far as to say he might be the greatest player that’s ever played, and that’s not just because we’re playing him. That’s my belief. The things he’s overcome, his will, his heart, his preparation for the game, I don’t know if there’s a better player in the history of the game than Tom Brady.”
Horton said that game-planning for Brady is not like it is for a normal quarterback.
“You’ve got to give him different looks; you’ve got to pressure,” Horton said. “You’ve got to play at your best because I’m pretty sure he’s going to prepare, and he won’t take any game, any opponent lightly. It’s the ultimate test for me as a coordinator, this one player. I think he’s everything you want in a franchise quarterback, and I think his love for the game is outstanding. Probably one of the best things about this guy from afar, and I’ve never been on the same team, is his ability to make his teammates better.
“You always try to disguise. With younger quarterbacks, you try to maybe confuse and do some things that aren’t necessarily schematically sound just to give them a different look but you can’t do that with Tom Brady. You can’t be unsound. You can disguise, but at the snap of the ball, he’ll know where to go with the ball and then, it becomes a one-on-one matchup.”
While Horton and the defense prepare to pressure and challenge Brady, the Browns’ offense will contend with a New England front that has been able to disrupt opposing quarterbacks despite the losses of nose tackle Vince Wilfork and middle linebacker Jerod Mayo for the season due to injuries.
“Defensively, they’ve had some injuries, but they’ve had guys step up and step in for them,” Chudzinski said. “They’ve made key plays at key times. As you look at their defensive line, they’ve been hit by a number of those injuries, but those guys have stepped in and played solid. Their outside linebackers are a real good group. You look at Chandler Jones and his ability to create pass rush. He’s a difference-maker in that area for them.”
Jones has generated 10.5 of the Patriots’ 35 sacks, while linebacker Brandon Spikes leads the way with 111 total tackles, including 68 solo stops and 43 assists.
If the pressure does not get to the quarterback, the Patriots are covered on the back end of their defense by cornerback Aqib Talib. Talib has registered 23 solo stops and a team-best four interceptions.
“It’s a tough defense always to play against just because they play hard and try to get turnovers,” Browns quarterback