FOXBOROUGH – Bill Belichick gets emotional when he remembers his old days with the New York Giants in that it was what gave him a real indoctrination into coaching. But it was the Cleveland Browns that gave him his first head coaching job.
His first win as head coach was against the Patriots. His first postseason win as head coach was also against the Patriots. Three hundred wins later, Belichick reigns supreme as the finest head coach the NFL has ever seen.
He got that 300th win on Sunday afternoon at rainy Gillette Stadium, defeating the Browns 27-13. Technically, these aren’t the same Browns that gave him his coaching start in 1991, as those Browns became the Baltimore Ravens in 1996. These “new” Browns retained the team colors and history but otherwise really have nothing to do with the originals, the team where he cultivated a fraternity of future head coaches called “slappies”. That team, which used to employ people like Paul Brown, Otto Graham, Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly, will be Belichick’s next problem next Sunday night in Baltimore.
But it’s still win number 300. Only George Halas and Don Shula have won more. Both men are in Belichick’s sights and both of their win totals are reachable.
In a driving rainstorm, the Patriots overcame a perky yet mistake-prone Cleveland team to run their 2019 record to 8-0, the first time they have had that record In four years. This game came down to a disastrous three-play stretch in the first quarter for Cleveland, numerous penalties, and the Patriots simply being the better team despite Cleveland dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides for much of the game. To have three takeaways in the first half and only be up 17-7 at the half seemed to portend good things for the Browns, but in the end the Patriots are still far too good for most of the league to deal with.
Cleveland suffered three turnovers on consecutive snaps in the first quarter. On their second possession of the game, facing second and 7 at their own 23, Baker Mayfield handed off to Nick Chubb on a right end run. In the middle of the scrum at the line of scrimmage, Cleveland guard Joel Bitonio fell down with his feet dangling in the air. One of those feet knocked the ball out of Chubb’s hands. Dont’a Hightower picked up the ball and rumbled in for 26 yards to give the Patriots a 10-0 lead.
On the first play of the next possession, Chubb (the former backfield mate of Sony Michel at Georgia) took off on a run off right tackle, cut back left and took off towards the end zone. He rumbled 44 yards to the Patriot 6-yard line before Jonathan Jones, who had trailed the play but ran like a gazelle after Chubb, caught him and knocked the ball out of his hands. Devin McCourty fell on the ball at the four. The Patriots punted after one first down, so the turnover didn’t hurt the Browns here.
On the very next play, Mayfield took the snap out of the shotgun and immediately threw a shovel pass forward. The pass landed in the arms of Lawrence Guy, who managed to hold on to the bang-bang pass for the interception. Two plays later, Tom Brady hit Julian Edelman for an eight-yard touchdown pass and a 17-0 lead.
To their credit, Cleveland maintained their poise and did not allow the game to get too far away from them. Chubb shook off his two fumbles and wound up with 131 yards rushing on 20 carries for a 6.6 yards per carry average. Mayfield connected on 20 of 31 passes for 194 yards, and Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry combined for 117 receiving yards. Brady was sacked three times and did not ever really get into a rhythm, although the rain also played a part in the slowing down of the Patriot offense.
Penalties hurt the Browns perhaps more than those turnovers did. In the end, the Browns were flagged 13 times for 85 yards. The Patriots were the benefactors of three first downs on penalties. In comparison, the Patriots were penalized only four times for 32 yards.
The only thing that the Patriots had problems with all game long was stopping Chubb. The offensive line opened up very good holes for him, but Chubb showed how hard he is to deal with as several Patriots had missed tackles. Chubb was able to run the ball both between the tackles as well as on the edge. Mayfield hurt the Patriots only occasionally; he didn’t make any jaw-dropping throws, and like Brady, he also never really got into a rhythm other than a 12-straight completion run.
If the Patriots run into problems down the road, the reasons may point back to the offensive line. With Isaiah Wynn due to come off injured reserve soon, that will help a bit. But this is another case of them having to “figure things out”, re-defining themselves as they do every year, so that come the playoffs, they will be fine and will understand their roles very clearly. That cohesiveness still hasn’t happened yet, and Wynn cannot come back soon enough as Marshall Newhouse was badly beaten on a third quarter sack of Brady by linebacker Olivier Vernon.
Brady finished with 20 of 36 passing for 259 yards and two touchdowns, and a passer rating of 96.9. Edelman was Mister Reliable again with eight catches for 78 yards and two touchdowns. James White had 75 yards receiving, 59 of them on a screen pass on third and ten in the third quarter. And in his Patriot debut, Mohammed Sanu had two catches for 23 yards, both of them gaining first downs for the Patriots.
Michel had 74 yards rushing on 21 carries and a 3.5 yards per carry average. His former Georgia teammate did a bit better, but Michel did not fumble the ball and will take the win.
The Patriots will be severely tested next week at Baltimore. Lamar Jackson has a unique skill set with his ability to rush for 100 yards as well as throwing the ball. The Ravens had a bye this week, so they will be rested and well prepared for the Patriots. This game will give everyone who watches football a much better gauge of how really good the Patriot defense is.
And Belichick knows darned well that this is the franchise he used to work for, who fired him in 1995 as a scapegoat for the team leaving Cleveland that season. Belichick makes no bones about his hatred for the Jets, but this team has to be right up there also. These teams have had some biblical playoff games over the last several years, and the Ravens have zero fear of the Patriots.
Browns Nation curses their cruel fate when they look at Belichick and how well he has done since leaving Cleveland. Anyone who saw this coming back in 1995 is a flat out liar. But it’s still significant for a city which hasn’t been an NFL champ since 1964.