The Browns are as close to must-win territory as it gets in Week 6.
At 2-3, Cleveland can ill-afford to drop another game before it hits an arduous part of the schedule with matchups against the Ravens, Bengals, Dolphins, Bills and Buccaneers in the next six weeks. The Browns need to find momentum Sunday against the Patriots, who are also 2-3, and avoid a loss that would extend their losing streak to three games, which would be only the second time they've had a losing streak of that length under head coach Kevin Stefanski.
Here are the biggest questions the Browns face as they prepare for a big one Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Can the Browns stop Rhamondre Stevenson?
That's the biggest question the defense faces this week – and arguably the toughest matchup the Browns have on their plate.
Stevenson is coming off a career-best 161-yard performance against the Lions and has taken a significant step up in his second NFL season. He's averaging 5.5 yards per carry and will pose a tall challenge to a Browns defense that was gashed last week against the Chargers and ranks 28th in the league against the run.
The Browns need to avoid a repeat performance of what Stevenson did to them last season when he was the Patriots' most lethal player in a 45-7 beatdown against the Browns in Week 10. Stevenson rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns.
"You'll be in your gap and think he hit another hole, so you try to re-trace and overlap, but then he'll backdoor and go through your gap," safety John Johnson III said. "It's playing the play all the way through because at any given moment, your gap can be challenged."
The Browns emphasized stronger tackling on defense this week by leading off practice Wednesday with a tackling circuit and reviewing film of missed tackles they've had so far this year.
Defensive coordinator Joe Woods put the reel together, which he said was about 15 plays long, and discussed it with the whole defense.
"I think we have to understand that you have to have a tackling plan and understand what type of tackle you need to make," Woods said. "Do I have the guy in the hole, and he has nowhere to go? Or is he in the open field, and I've got to put myself in position and get the guy on the ground.
"I believed it helped them. We'll see."
Check out photos of players and coaches working to prepare for the teams regular season game against the New England Patriots
Who's the NE QB: Jones or Zappe?
We probably won't know until pregame Sunday — or, because Bill Belichick famously prefers to keep his team's plans under wraps, the first Patriots offensive series.
The Browns are taking the smart approach and preparing for both quarterbacks. Mac Jones started the first three games before suffering an ankle injury and is questionable for Sunday after he was limited in practice all week. Bailey Zappe stepped in the last two weeks and has gone 1-1, completing 27 of 36 pass attempts for two touchdowns and an interception.
Jones, for what it's worth, wasn't necessarily excelling before his injury and had thrown two touchdowns and five interceptions, including three in Week 3 against the Ravens.
When asked if Jones had been medically cleared to play, Belichick simply said "it could happen at any time." The Browns have studied the film on both QBs, however, and Stefanski said their offense is similar with each quarterback.
"Not a whole lot different," he said. "They're running the ball really well. They're efficient in the run game. (Zappe) has a very good understanding in the pass game of where to go with the ball … I think they are running their offense truly, regardless of who the quarterback is. I think both guys are very talented."
Will Deion Jones play?
That's still up in the air as of Friday, per Stefanski.
Jones practiced with the Browns all week
after he was acquired from the Falcons in a trade Monday, and Stefanski has said the biggest factor for his gameday status Sunday will come down to how comfortable he is with a new playbook and different terminology.
When he's ready, Jones should provide a tackling lift to the middle of the defense — he tallied 137 of them last year with Atlanta.
"He's working hard," Stefanski said. "We'll see about the game, but I know this, he is working very hard in the meeting room and working very hard on the field. We will see how it goes over the next 48 hours."
Will Browns run game best Belichick?
The Patriots run defense ranks a less-than-stellar 21st in the league against the run, but the Browns aren't taking anything lightly in their preparations for them.
Belichick is known for scheming up creative ways to stop a team's biggest offensive strength, and with the Browns, that's undoubtedly their run game. Nick Chubb has topped 100 rushing yards in four of five games this season and is the NFL's leading rusher.
Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt dueled against Belichick several times as a player with the Bills, an AFC East rival with New England, from 1994-2003 and since he began his coaching career with the Bills in 2006. He's familiar with the often unfamiliar — but effective — game plans Belichick can organize, and he said the Browns are ready to react quickly if Belichick has something ready for them.
"Obviously, I have a ton of respect for that organization, him and their scheme on defense," he said. "There's stuff that pops up every year like, 'That's good. That's really good.' Definitely, a well-coached unit.
"We're prepared for everything. We've faced a lot of different fronts against other teams. I'm not sure if there's much else that he could show, but I wouldn't put it past him to come up with something."