The Browns needed to play their best football of the year and get a win over the Bengals in Week 9 and they did just that en route to 41-16 victory in a statement game. They need to build off that road win and find a way to get the job done against the 5-4 New England Patriots in a game that figures to impact the AFC playoff picture.
The Patriots have won three in a row and four of their last five under the venerable Bill Belichick. It should be noted, however, that the Pats are 4-0 on the road this year, but are uncharacteristically 1-4 at home. The offense is led by rookie quarterback Mac Jones and a strong ground game that has already produced 11 rushing touchdowns this season. Defensively, the Patriots are their standard, stingy selves, and the pass rush is led by Matthew Judon's nine sacks up. They have an elite, ball-hawking secondary anchored by corners J.C. Jackson (five interceptions) and Jonathan Jones and a trio of excellent safeties in Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger and Devin McCourty. Overall the Patriots rank 10th in scoring offense (25.6) and fourth in scoring defense (18.9), so this will be a very tough test.
The Browns will have to play smart, sound football to emerge with another critical victory, and we look at just how to do that in this week's Winning Mix.
1. Get out to a fast start and finish the game
I liked this note last week and am going to roll with it again this week against the Patriots for a couple of key reasons. As it pertains to the fast start, there is no doubt that Denzel Ward's opening drive pick-six against the Bengals set the tone for that game and the big Browns win. A fast start is always important, but on the road against the Patriots and Belichick it is flat out critical. The Patriots are 103-3 all-time at Gillette Stadium in the regular season when leading at halftime. 103-3! However, it must be noted that two of those three losses came this season in Week 4 against Tom Brady (who else?) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Week 6 against the Dallas Cowboys. So, obviously, these are not the same old Patriots, but you never want to have to chase points against a Belichick defense.
The Browns not only got out to a fast start against the Bengals, but also took a commanding 24-10 lead at the half and they finished the game with gusto. The Browns won the second half, 17-6, and went on to enjoy a comfortable 25-point victory. Jones and the Patriots are just 2-4 when trailing after three quarters and are 3-0 this year when taking the lead into the fourth quarter. Last week's blueprint is a good one to follow, especially when it comes to how to start and finish this game.
2. Beware of J.C. Jackson and the interception-hungry Patriots
Jackson is one of the most dangerous cornerbacks in the league and can single-handedly ruin games with his turnover-generating talents. Jackson is coming off a two-interception game, including an 88-yard pick-six in the Patriots win over the Carolina Panthers last week. For the season, Jackson already has five interceptions (the same number as the Browns' entire team) and the Patriots as a team have 13, which is the most of any team in the NFL this season. Because of all of those interceptions, the Patriots also lead the NFL with a 76.6 quarterback rating allowed, so the Browns passing attack will have to be very careful with the football and very sharp in their execution.
Jackson not only has the five picks this year, which rank second in the NFL this season, but he also is tied for the league lead with 12 passes defensed. Jackson has a quarterback rating against of just 49.8, second-best among full time starters this year. Since the start of the 2018 NFL season, no player has more interceptions than Jackson, who has 22 picks, so he must be accounted for at all times.
In addition to Jackson's five interceptions, the entire Patriots secondary can get their hands on the ball. Jonathan Jones has one interception while Phillips (three), Kyle Dugger (two) and Devin McCourty (one) all have sniped an opposing quarterback this year.
The Patriots have intercepted multiple passes in three straight games, all wins, and are 4-0 on the season when they have two-plus picks. They are 1-2 this year when failing to register an interception, with the lone win coming over the Houston Texans. Baker Mayfield has been taking great care of the football this year. He has thrown just one interception in his last six starts and has not thrown multiple interceptions in any game since Week 6 of the 2020 season. Protecting the football against these ballhawks is going to be paramount to success for the Browns on Sunday.
3. RAW POWER dominant defense
When the Browns have won in 2021, it has been due in large part to their dominant defense. In the Browns' five wins, they have allowed an average of just 12.8 points per game. On five occasions this year, the Browns have held their opponents to 16 or fewer points and are 4-1 in such games. It should also be noted that in their five wins, the Browns have recorded 19 of their 27 sacks on the season and generated 10 of their 11 takeaways. In the five wins, they've also held their opponents below 350 yards and limited the opposition to just 255 or fewer yards on three occasions. The Patriots are a bit of an anomaly in the sense that they are 19th in total offense at 345.6 yards per game, but 10th in scoring offense at 25.6 points per game. Scoring has been the key for them, and believe me, the interceptions we identified in No. 2 have been critical to their scoring offense.
The Patriots have not won a game this year in which they have been held below 20 points, going 0-3 in such games. They are 5-1, however, when they score 24-plus points this year, so shutting down the New England offense has a direct correlation to winning. Jones is your typical rookie in that he is susceptible to pressure and struggles with the blitz. Jones has thrown four interceptions when blitzed and has a quarterback rating of 76.5. Look for the Browns to generate their pressure naturally, and defensive coordinator Joe Woods will no doubt dial up some blitzes to try and confuse the rookie quarterback into a potentially game-changing turnover.