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What to Watch For: Patriots vs. Browns

Friday, December 06, 2013

 

The stretch run has arrived. Now, with playoff destiny in firm focus, the Patriots have some decisions to make.

With a win over the Cleveland Browns Sunday at Gillette Stadium, New England can actually clinch a playoff spot with a month left to go in the regular season.  And if things break right for them (and wrong for the Miami Dolphins with a loss), the AFC East title can also be an early holiday gift.  Cleveland, however, presents a challenge to the Patriots that Carolina and Denver could not.  The Houston Texans gave them a taste of that type of challenge last week...a team that has little to lose, ready to exploit the flaws in a talented but incomplete title contender.

The challenge will be to stay focused, and to stay healthy.  Or, to begin building for a playoff run that will last longer than just a single game...part of which could be accomplished by holding onto a home field advantage.  Finishing 1st or 2nd in the AFC, which they have a shot to do, would help immensely. 

Here's the potential problem for the last month of the regular season, which starts this Sunday with Cleveland - how to balance the need to win and increase the chances of sticking around in the playoffs, with the need to get healthier, and the desire for continued improvement.  While the offense is showing signs of improved health, the numbers are going up.  With the defense still missing some big pieces in the middle (Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo), the replacements have filled in admirably, but are getting "figured out" by opponents.   Is this where we see New England return to its recent "let's outscore 'em" ways in the hope of reaching the ultimate goal?

You know how that worked out the past few years, don't you?

It should end up being a combination of continued improvement on offense for Tom Brady and his receiving corps, now that primary targets Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola are actively involved.  And healthier.  Defensively, to borrow a Bill Belichick phrase "it is what it is."  With a softer middle being exploited by the Broncos and the Texans for the most part, much of the attention to improvement should be focused there.  Some of that can come from a continued emphasis on the pass rush...just like some improvement in the secondary has come from there as well.  And the secondary needs to regain its health.  Play 'em, or sit 'em?  That question is a good one this season...and not easy to answer.

Don't book your extended playoff plans just yet.  Cleveland (or Miami, or Baltimore, or Buffalo) could still rock.

Rock the QB

Whoever it might be.  And as of this writing, the starter for Sunday could be anyone - including street free-agent Caleb Hanie.  The defense simply has to make his afternoon uncomfortable, and not allow him time to reach his targets - which will probably be Josh Gordon, early and often. 

Don't Flash Gordon

Clearly, Gordon must have a big day for the Browns to sustain any offense at all.  Expect Aqib Talib to match up with the 6-3, 245 pound receiver...but with his size and ability, even Talib will need some help over the top.  The Patriots have always been pretty good at taking away an oppenents' best feature and make them beat 'em with someone else.  That certainly will be a goal on Sunday, but with 498 receiving yards in his last two games...it will be tough to take Gordon out of the equation.

Play Old School

As mentioned earlier, with TB12's primary targets picking up steam, it seems the best defense might be a really good offense right now.  This is one game where the pedal needs to stay on the metal offensively, with no real let up if given the chance to win it early.  The Patriots allowed the Texans to lead by 10 at half...giving them confidence...and struggled to finish it.  Can't let that happen against a 4-8 team, at home, that doesn't have a quarterback.  If you expect to be a title contender.

Projection:

Patriots 33, Browns 16

 

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