Monday, December 6, 2004

Patriots 42, Browns 15 (12/5/2004)

The Patriots steamrolled the Browns yesterday, with a 27-point win that helped them keep pace with Pittsburgh (both at 11-1) for one of those first-round bye weeks. You might ask, how do you play your sloppiest game of the year and win 42-15? Start by making sure your opponent has an interim head coach, add in two two veteran QBs sidelined with injuries, mix in a rookie starting quarterback, spice liberally with front-office turmoil, and decorate with a bunch of cheap-shot, self-glorifying, overpaid, underachieving hotshots who will stop trying in the third quarter. Unfortunately, the Patriots can't play the Browns every week, because they'd wax these guys 16-straight. Randy Cross (the CBS commentator) can talk all he wants about how NFL people should consider whether they want to be a part of "something special" that will be built in Cleveland, but there's nothing special about a team that's one tie-breaker away from missing the playoffs six straight years. In fact, the last two coaches to lead the Browns to the playoffs were Butch Davis and Bill Belichick -- Davis was fired last week, Belichick was fired in 1996, though he's done pretty well since then.

So on to the game. The Pats ended this one early. I remember when the score was 21-0 and I thought the Pats had played poorly to that point. That is the kind of game that drives the other team's fans crazy; when you know you had some opportunities but the other team was so good you still had no chance. It reminded me of a Patriots-Chiefs game in 1990. KC came in with a strong ground game and my brother and I talked all week about how we had to stop the run to have any chance to win. On their first play from scrimmage, they threw an 84-yard touchdown pass and the stadium fell deadly silent. The game was over and half the fans weren't even in their seats. I did get a nice tan, though.

Well, the Cleveland fans must have felt that way yesterday. Bethel Johnson quieted the crowd with an opening kickoff return for touchdown, and with a rookie quarterback, it was game, set, and match. The Pats defense was so strong that Cleveland's only scores came as follows: tipped ball fell into the hands of Antonio Bryant for a touchdown; Dexter Reid got burned twice for 40+ yards on back-to-back plays, the second of which was a touchdown to Bryant again. That was it folks. The Browns got inside the Patriots 20 yard line once the entire game. Their running game was stymied (17 rushes for 46 yards), 9 of their 14 drives went three plays or less, and they committed five turnovers.

The Patriots front seven played exemplary defense, shutting down the run while pressuring McCown and cutting off the underneath passes that rookie QBs love so much. Randall Gay continues to impress, knocking down several passes and returning a fumble for a touchdown. And since the Pats apparently trust Troy Brown more than Earthwind Mooreland at cornerback, it was Eugene Wilson starting at corner and Troy Brown the third CB in the nickel package. Rodney Harrison had an INT (and nearly had a second), and he laid down the law over the middle all game long. And of course, old reliable Troy Brown got his second pickoff of the season and even made a slamming tackle by the sideline. Not that he got to enjoy it; he was right back out there on the next offensive play. The Pats secondary might just be the second most impressive story of the season -- right behind the resurgence of the San Diego Chargers. I'm more convinced than ever that if Romeo Crennel leaves, Eric Mangini will be promoted to defensive coordinator. If not, he might end up D-coordinator for another team next year.

At the end of the first quarter, the Pats were up 14-0 (both 90+ yard scoring "drives") and had a 10:40 to 4:20 time of possession advantage. They pretty much kept that going, rushing Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk, and Cedric Cobbs to a 39:08 to 20:52 time of possession edge and 225 to 46 advantage in rushing yards. Brady might have been able to take the day off, with Dillon and Cobbs alternately getting stuffed in the backfield and then gashing the defense for another first down. It seemed that when Cleveland tried, they could actually stop the run; but then the Pats would open Hummer sized holes on the next play and it would be first down again. It was a dominating performance by both lines; unfortunately for Cleveland, their performance only lasted until the half. After that, it was all Patriots all the time.

If this was a "audition for next year's roster" (as Randy Cross put it), then I wouldn't expect many Cleveland Browns to be on the team next year. Probably five dropped passes, stupid penalties, a dreadful cheapshot by the O-line, and a bunch of linebackers and defensive backs who just refused to run to the ball and/or tackle if they happened to be in the way. I can clearly recall three plays were Dillon or Cobbs ran to the outside after WR David Givens *wiped out* a Browns linebacker. That's a 5' 11" 200 pound receiver taking out a 6' 4" 240 pound linebacker. That can happen once, but after that, the linebacker simply has to start laying out some punishment. And their defensive backs avoided contact all day, with the best example being Daniel Graham running out of one tackle and then pasting the safety along the sideline. Just no heart left in that team. Wait 'til next year.

As for our beloved Patriots, please indulge me while I take a walk down memory lane, circa Spring of 2004. I thought the Patriots won the draft and the off-season maneuvering when they landed Corey Dillon for a second-round draft choice. But every week it's clearer that it's so much more than that. Vince Wilfork and Keith Traylor are improvements over Ted Washington. Ty Warren and Jarvis Green are improvements over Jarvis Green and Bobby Hamilton. Stephen Neal is better than Russ Hochstein -- as evidenced by the fact that Hochstein (last year's Super Bowl starter) now comes off the bench. Cedric Cobbs is better than Larry Centers, who never really fit in. The secondary is deeper than ever, with the three best corners injured and Randall Gay, Eugene Wilson, and Troy Brown shutting down team after team. Every one of those players (save Troy Brown) was added in the last two years.

So what happens when Ty Law and Tyrone Poole return, and Randall Gay and Asante Samuel are the nickel and dime backs? SUPER BOWL, BABY -- YEEEEE-HAAAAA!!!!!!!!!! Pardon me... we now return to our regularly scheduled program.

So where does that leave us? It's clear that when the Patriots run, they are unstoppable. And up next is a home game against the Cincinnati Bengals, with the worst-rated running defense in the AFC (giving up 142 yards a game). Should be a cakewalk; right? Somehow, I don't think so. I think the Pats will win, because they always do at home. But the Bengals have a physical defense that man-handled us in the pre-season (I know, I know, pre-season means nothing -- but their first team whipped up on our first team), and head coach Marvin Lewis always has some special stuff on defense.

For now, the Pats are closing in on a division title. If they win on Sunday, the worst they could go is 12-4, and even though those pesky Jets could finish at 13-3, I just don't see them running the table and us losing the rest of the year. And of course, they are one step closer to getting a much coveted first round playoff bye. Pittsburgh almost lost yesterday, but they retain their number 1 seeding by virtue of their win over the Pats. But I'm not worried about that at all. We had to beat the Steelers on the road to win our first Super Bowl, so if we have to play the AFC Championship game there again, I'm all for it. It's better than being knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Don't look now, but Drew Bledsoe and the Buffalo Bills are one game out of the playoffs right now. They can't win the division, but they've won five of their last six and played themselves back into the post-season picture. If that happens, it would be the first time since re-alignment that three teams made the playoffs from the same division."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 11-1!

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