One by one, ClevelandBrowns.com is breaking down each of the Browns' 2016 regular season opponents as the dog days of the offseason unfold.*
Today's preview spotlights the Browns' second home game of the season and a chance to measure themselves against one of the best teams in the NFL.
Who:New England Patriots
When:Week 5 (Oct. 9, FirstEnergy Stadium, 1 p.m.)
Series History (last meeting): 12-10 (Patriots 27, Browns 26 in 2013 at Gillette Stadium).
The coach:Bill Belichick — 17th season
The stakes: The first matchup since a close game three seasons ago, the Browns host New England in what will be Cleveland's second home game in the first seven weeks of the season. As such, a win against the Patriots would go a long way for head coach Hue Jackson and Co. for more reasons than one. The Patriots, meanwhile, will welcome starting QB Tom Brady back to the lineup after a four-game suspension for his role in using deflated footballs in the 2015 AFC Championship Game (Brady and his team have appealed the suspension).
Offseason storyline: The suspension of Brady, who will miss the first four games of the season after the U.S. Second Court of Appeals ruled to reinstate the league's ban earlier this year. In his place, backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo is expected to start and guide the Patriots until Brady returns for their road tip at Cleveland.
Matchup to watch: Brady vs. the Browns defense. Cleveland has said it wants to be an aggressive defense focused on two relatively simple concepts in stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. Against the Patriots and Brady — who might need some time to shake off some offseason rust — the Browns should have a chance to make good on that approach.
Biggest addition: TE Martellus Bennett. The Patriots acquired the 29-year-old from Chicago (and a sixth-round pick) in exchange for a fourth-round pick. Bennett caught 90 passes for 916 yards in 2014 and earned a Pro Bowl nod for his efforts. While his production dipped last season (53 catches for 439 yards), Bennett has proven himself as one of the league's better tight ends and should make a reliable No. 2 behind Rob Gronkowski.
Biggest loss: DE Chandler Jones. The Patriots traded Jones — who started 15 games last season and notched 12.5 sacks — to the Cardinals in exchange for OL Jonathan Cooper and a second-round draft pick. Jones, who enters his fifth season since being drafted by New England in the first round, was regarded as the Patriots' top pass rusher despite inconsistency throughout his relatively young career (he had six sacks in 2012 and 2014 and 11.5 in 2013) and an off-field incident earlier this year.
The star:Brady - Four Super Bowl wins, a three-time Super Bowl MVP, two-time NFL MVP and 11-time Pro Bowl selection. Brady's resume speaks for itself. As long as the veteran signal-caller is under center, the Patriots are a threat to win the AFC East (and then some) each and every year. Even at 38 years old and facing a four-game suspension, Brady remains one of the league's best — if not *the *best — quarterback currently playing the game. He passed for 4,770 yards and 36 touchdowns (against just seven interceptions) last season, his best statistical output since 2012.
The X-Factor(s):Gronkowski and Garoppolo — Gronk has established himself as arguably the league's best tight end and, overall, one of the most dominant playmakers. He caught 72 passes for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns last season and 82 catches 1,124 yards and 12 scores the year before. As he goes, so goes the Patriot offense. Garoppolo, meanwhile, will take the most meaningful snaps of his young NFL career in replacing Brady for the first four games of the season. The third-year player has completed 20-of-31 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown.
What makes this game tough: It's the Patriots. Regardless of injuries, personnel issues, the stakes, New England seems to always find a way to win on a consistent basis. Brady should have plenty of fire in his belly when he makes his on-field return against the Browns, and the Patriots have controlled the series between these two teams since the mid-90s.
What makes them beatable: What's that saying about any given Sunday? The Browns should have plenty motivation in this one with a chance to square off against one of the league's best teams in front of the Dawg Pound on a crisp October afternoon. New England, meanwhile, might take some time to get Brady into a groove and the run game -- which finished 30th last season -- could potentially be a weakness this season. If Cleveland's pass defense can lock down Brady and Co. and force the Patriots to be one-dimensional, the Browns will have a chance.