The New England Patriots enter Week 10 as one of the hottest teams in the NFL. New England has won their last three games and is 4-1 in their last five. With a 5-4 record, the Patriots are a legitimate playoff contender in the AFC.
New England’s opponent on Sunday, the Cleveland Browns, is also 5-4 and is coming off a dominating 41-16 win vs. a solid Bengals team. Both the Patriots and the Browns seem to be trending in the right direction.
With the AFC playoff race so tight, this week’s matchup could have very serious playoff implications down the road. Earning a head-to-head victory against a fellow AFC playoff contender is of the utmost importance for both of these teams.
As the records suggest, the Patriots and the Browns are two evenly matched teams. It wouldn’t be shocking to see this game come down to the final seconds. Without further ado, here are the Patriots’ 5 keys to victory against the Browns.
Patriots Keys to Victory
Slow down the Browns rushing attack
Before we get into anything, it’s important to note that the Browns may be incredibly short-handed at running back on Sunday. Running backs, Nick Chubb, Demetric Felton, and John Kelly are all on the COVID-19 reserve list. Additionally, Kareem Hunt is on the injured reserve.
As of Thursday, November 11th, none of the Cleveland running backs have come off the COVID-19 reserve list, but it remains a possibility that they could come off the list by Sunday if they have two negative tests 24 hours apart.
All that said, the Browns are still dangerous on the ground. The last time Chubb missed a game, D’Ernest Johnson, the expected starter on Sunday, rushed for 146 yards and the Browns won.
No disrespect to the Browns passing offense, as they’re a good group, but the key to slowing down Cleveland is stopping the run. The Browns rely on the run game as much as anyone in the NFL. For good reason too. Cleveland continuously finds a way to get rushing yards, regardless of who’s in at running back.
Two big reasons for Cleveland’s consistent success on the ground is their creative outside-zone running scheme and their outstanding offensive line. Even with Jack Conklin, the Browns starting right tackle, going on injured reserve, you can make an argument the Browns offensive line is still one of the best in the league.
The Browns currently rank first in the NFL in rush offense DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). As for the Patriots, they rank 17th in run defense DVOA. It will be fascinating to see how Bill Belichick attempts to slow down the Browns rushing attack.
Contain the Browns Pass Rush
(NOTE: Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, and Takkarist McKinley were all on the Browns’ injury report on Wednesday, but I expect to see Garrett and Clowney on Sunday. McKinley may very well be active too.)
The biggest strength of the Browns defense is the pass rush. Cleveland has 27 sacks this season, which ranks second-most in the NFL. The ferocious Browns pass rush is led by Garrett and Clowney. Through nine games, Garrett and Clowney have combined for 52 tackles, 15.5 sacks, and 20 tackles for loss. Garrett is widely considered to be one of the top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year.
Safe to say, the first step to having any kind of success against the Browns defense is by containing the Cleveland defensive front. They can wreck a game quickly if the offensive line isn’t ready.
Last week, the New England offensive line did a pretty good job holding a very good Panthers pass rush in check, aside from the Brian Burns forced fumble. The Patriots only gave up a 25% pressure rate per PFF (Pro Football Focus).
A similair performance this Sunday would undoubtedly be a win for the New England offensive line. Double-teaming and chipping Garrett on passing plays will likely be part of this week’s game plan.
Play clean offensive football (no turnovers and limit penalties)
The Patriots had a sloppy day offensively last week against Carolina. New England was penalized three times for a false start, twice for delay of game, and once for holding.
In addition to the penalties, Mac Jones had two turnovers. The first turnover came on a strip-sack, in which Jones had Brandon Bolden wide open in the middle of the field with enough time to pull the trigger. Jones didn’t let it loose and the pass rusher made him pay.
The second turnover came on a bad interception to Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore read the play perfectly and essentially ran the route for Jakobi Meyers.
While the interception was a good play by Gilmore, it’s on Jones to see Gilmore right in front of the receiver and find another place to throw the football. A turnover like that would be extremely costly against a better opponent like the Browns.
The New England offense got off the hook last Sunday, as the defense stepped up and shut down the Panthers.
It’s hard to expect them to do the same again this week against a better offense. The Patriots’ offense must limit penalties and take care of the football or it could cost them the game.
Be able to get pressure on Baker Mayfield without blitzing
Baker Mayfield may not be the most flashy quarterback and he has his weaknesses, but he’s effective. Mayfield spreads the ball around to multiple different wideouts, he’s got good mobility, and he’s good against the blitz.
Because Mayfield and the Browns’ offensive line has proven to be good against the blitz, it’s imperative that the New England defensive front can get pressure without needing to blitz. Doing so would also limit the risk of getting burnt by play action.
Easier said than done though. As previously mentioned, the Browns offensive line is one of, if not the best, in football. That said, they have been susceptible to giving up some sacks this season (25 sacks given up).
Matt Judon has had an incredible season thus far and he’s typically someone you can count on to be disruptive in the passing game. Christian Barmore has also been very disruptive from his interior position. New England could use a third member of the defensive front to step up if Judon gets chipped or double-teamed. Josh Uche is a name to watch.
Bottom line: New England getting pressure with four will give them a huge advantage.
Get Mac Jones Going Early
After heating up in Week 5-7, Mac Jones has come back down to earth a bit in the last two games against the Chargers and the Panthers. That’s not to say he’s played poorly, as he’s still been the best rookie quarterback out there, but he’s cooled off a bit.
Jones will need to heat up again this week because the Browns defense is very good against the run. Cleveland ranks fifth in rush defense DVOA. Meanwhile, the Browns pass defense ranks 19th in DVOA.
I still think the Patriots can have some success on the ground, but New England needs to get the passing offense going in order to consistently move the ball effectively. This is especially true if Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson aren’t able to clear concussion protocol in time for Sunday.
It would be ideal if Josh McDaniels got Jones in a rhythm early on the opening script and really set the tone for the rest of the game. The Browns’ safeties, while talented, can be liabilities in the passing game. New England can hunt for those matchups and create advantages in the passing game.
Matchups to watch
Isaiah Wynn vs. Myles Garrett
Cleveland will very likely line Myles Garrett up across from Isaiah Wynn. Garrett is arguably the best defensive player in football. Wynn, meanwhile, struggled some in pass protection early in the season but hasn’t been as bad as the narrative surrounding his play.
That said, as previously mentioned, the Patriots need to use double-teams and chips with the backs and tight ends on every drop-back pass play or Garrett could make his presence felt in a big way. That’s not a knock on Wynn as a player. Very few tackles in the NFL can handle Garrett one-on-one.
Matt Judon vs. Blake Hance
Matt Judon is having a career year this season and is one of the best pass rushers in the league. Judon has a golden opportunity to keep his incredible season going on Sunday when he goes against the Browns backup right tackle Blake Hance. Hance is starting place of Jack Conklin, who’s on IR.
New England likes to move Judon around, but I expect him to get a lot of snaps on the right side against Hance. This is a big mismatch and we’ll likely see the Browns’ shade help towards Hance’s side of the ball. Nonetheless, it will be intriguing to see if Judon can make some game-changing plays.
Browns Tight Ends vs. Patriots Safeties
The Browns have a deep group of tight ends with David Njoku, Austin Hooper, and Harrison Bryant. All three players are legit NFL targets. Njoku actually leads the Browns in receiving, with Hooper trailing not far behind.
Luckily, on paper, the Patriots are capable of matching up with the Cleveland tight ends. New England has had good safety play this year. Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, and Devin McCourty have all, for the most part, been good in coverage this season. Who wins the battle between these two groups will be fun to see.
This article was edited by Luke Ervin.