FOXBOROUGH – No way Cleveland was this good.
No Courtney Brown. No Daylon McCutcheon. No Aaron Shea. A pathetic offense that is Kevin Johnson and not much else.
About the only thing the Cleveland Browns had going for them was a center who perhaps should still be playing for the home team. That plus a new head coach who has instantly transformed this team from a bunch of expansion patsies to a bunch of hard-nosed, tough guys who battle you every game, every down.
The Patriots didn’t figure to have it easy, but they also perhaps didn’t figure to win today as ugly as they did. They did prevail on the scoreboard, 27-16, but the game wasn’t “comfy” until 3:21 left to play in the game. Cleveland played the Patriots extremely tough here in Foxborough today, forcing Tom Brady off of his “A” game and leaving the Patriots basically frustrated on offense.
Fortunately, the defense found enough intensity left over from last week’s epic win over the Jets to hold down the Browns. Tim Couch was under siege most all afternoon, and the unit gave up only one touchdown drive all day. The defense did coax four turnovers, and Johnson was held under 100 yards receiving. The star wideout did not greatly impact the game like he could have.
As the Patriots grind towards a playoff berth and a possible division title, winning a game like this might be sweeter than the gem last week at Exit 16-W. With a tough team in much the same playoff position as the Patriots on the other side of the ball, the Patriots played a sub-par game and still came out on top by 11 points. Losing last year to Cleveland was a disgrace. But this was a much different Browns team this year, and the Patriots did just enough to win the game.
That last phrase – “just enough to win the game” – is the biggest thing that has transformed this team from 2000 schmucks into 2001 winners. Last year, critical plays always went against the Patriots. This year, they are going for them. That’s pretty much how they won the game today, and it will take them a long way as this season winds to its conclusion.
In the first quarter, after a swap of field goals, came the first critical juncture. On the first play of their second drive, after the defense had just yielded a 16-play drive that covered eight minutes and 20 seconds (in which Cleveland came away with only a field goal), Brady telegraphed a pass in the left flat to David Patten. Corey Fuller read Brady’s eyes perfectly, and snitched the ball. 49 yards later, Fuller found the end zone and the Browns had a 10-3 lead.
So what happens? Brady, looking disgusted at himself for throwing such a dunderheaded pass, takes his team 66 yards on 11 plays. He hits Patten for 19 yards, then Troy Brown for 18, then Patten again for 8. On fourth and one at the three, Antowain Smith converts for two yards, then on the next play powers in from the one to tie the game. The Patriots answered right back after the Brady pick, and never trailed again.
Two drives later, Troy Brown took a punt at his own 15 and ran to the house. It matched Irving Fryar for the second longest punt return in team history and was four yards shy of Mike Haynes’ team record. The Pats had a 17-10 lead, which they extended to 20-10 by halftime. The Patriots seemed to have the Browns in a lock by that time.
But unlike last week, the third quarter blues came back to haunt the Patriots. On their third offensive play of the quarter, Brady threw a pass on his way down to the ground, right into the waiting arms of Earl Little. The Patriots were lucky in that the Browns only cashed a field goal from that, a 39-yarder by Phil (why can’t we get kickers like this guy?) Dawson.
Unlike the previous pick (this pass was dumber than the first pick), the Patriots did not immediately respond. The defense held Cleveland at bay for the balance of the quarter, but Adam Vinatieri made fans wish the team had held onto Dawson. Into a not-too-stiff wind, Vinatieri missed field goals from 39 and 48 yards. The last miss came right at the tail end of the third quarter, as Butch Davis shrewdly called a time out to force Vinatieri to kick into the wind, versus with the wind in the fourth quarter.
This propelled the Browns off on a 7-play, 58-yard scoring drive. But again, the Patriots gave up only a Dawson field goal, and still had the lead at 20-16. Since Brady’s second pick, the Patriots had held the Browns to either three-and-outs or scoring drives that looked serious but only yielded field goals.
Looking into this further, the Patriots began the fourth quarter by giving up a 37-yard pass from Couch to running back Jamel White, and then a 22-yard pass to Johnson. That would pretty much be it for Cleveland for the rest of the afternoon. The defense stiffened until garbage time, and the Patriots still led the game at this point.
What may go down as the key moment in the game was a pooch punt by the beleaguered Vinatieri. Facing fourth and nine at the Browns’ 34, Vinatieri lined up for a 52-yard field goal with the wind (he had nailed a 54-yarder in the opening quarter). But Vinatieri pooch-kicked instead. Jermaine Wiggins was able to avoid going into the end zone, and downed the ball at the two. Davis called for a review (denied), and was left with only one timeout.
The Patriots held on three downs, and got the ball back at the Browns’ 36. Smith, who seems to make most of his hay in the fourth quarter, covered 31 of the 36 yards to the end zone. He ran it in from five yards out to put the game away, even though replays showed he was really down at the one (the call that stood actually benefited Cleveland, as they merely got the ball back quicker).
The Browns did a good job of roughing up Brady. Jamir Miller had two of Cleveland’s three sacks of Brady. Those two picks that he threw were both ill advised, and Brady never really looked comfortable out there despite still managing a good completion percentage. His passer rating for the day was only 61.3, and he was not the star of the game by any means.
Smith finished with 76 yards rushing, but as is the case in previous weeks, that number is deceiving in that 31 of those yards came at the end of the game. The Browns had Smith pretty well bottled up until the final touchdown drive.
But Smith did score two touchdowns. Both of them were tough runs, and they were Smith barely crossing the goal line on each play. In the big picture, it isn’t glitzy, glamourous offensive wizardry that you’d like to see each week, but those two touchdowns did more for the Patriots than if they were Indianapolis-esque bombs.
The Patriots won despite not relying heavily on the return of Terry Glenn. Glenn, who was booed by the Foxborough crowd every time he made a catch, did haul in four passes for nearly 17 yards per catch. But Glenn’s presence did not open things up for Brown and Patten as expected, as the Cleveland secondary, who leads the league in picks, did a fine job overall in keeping the Patriots wideouts in check. Brown did manage 7 catches and went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season in receiving, but most of his grabs were between the 20s.
This was one of those wins that make playoff teams what they are, and a win like this has to make everyone feel fantastic. It was a tough, ugly win, lacking artistry and beauty. The Patriots can expect a lot of ugly the rest of the way. They know that they can win these kinds of games now.
This game would have been lost in ’00. It was won in ’01. And this one really wasn’t about Brady.
The Patriots are right where they want to be, like they were in ’94 and ’96. A team nobody wants to play right now.
You love lots of points. But if given the choice, take “tough” any day.
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