Is it hats and t-shirts time already?
With a Miami Dolphins loss and a win of their own, the New England Patriots can clinch a coveted spot in the playoffs as the AFC East champion. If they do, look for the championship apparel to make an appearance.
Patriots Defense vs. Browns Offense
If one thing has remained consistent in the Patriots' ever-evolving defense, it has been Aqib Talib's spot directly across from the opponent's best player.
In his conference call with Boston Media, Browns superstar receiver Josh Gordon mentioned Talib.
You know it seems like he is a real fiery kind of guy. He wants to go out there and prove, I guess, he’s physical and it seems as though he wants to establish himself as one of the top tier cornerbacks, and that’s great and good for him. They have a great defense and he’s a great player. At the same time, I have to go out there and do what I have to do regardless of who I line up against, but there is a lot of credit for what he’s done this season.
I expect the Patriots to get away from the zone-coverage principles they used in the first half of last week's game against the Houston Texans. Talib will need to contain Gordon. He doesn't need to pitch a shutout, but Gordon can't have another career day.
Regardless of who the Browns place under center—quarterbacks Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell have both suffered injuries—the Patriots defense will be ready according to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
I would say that no matter who the quarterback is, Cleveland is going to run their offense. Their offense is their offense. Whoever it is – and I’ve looked at all of them – I think they all can do what the quarterback needs to do, which is make all throws. As I just said about [Josh] Gordon: throw short, hit the check-downs, throw intermediate routes, the in-cuts, the crossing patterns, the comebacks and those kind of plays and throw the ball down the field.
The Patriots have been gashed inside as of late, giving up over 400 yards on the ground the last two weeks combined. Look for Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes to have an impact this week by keeping gap integrity and playing physical.
If the Patriots can't keep the Browns running game under control, it will hinder their ability to get creative with their blitz and coverage packages.
Patriots Offense vs. Browns Defense
While the Browns (4-8) might not have a pretty record, their defense has some very talented parts. Cornerback Joe Haden and pass-rush specialist Barkevious Mingo—a dynamic presence with four sacks on the year as a rookie—are two players who the Patriots will need to account for.
Tom Brady showed some love for Haden in Wednesday's press conference.
He’s really smart, so I think he – does he jump routes? Yeah, when you throw it. And then when you don’t throw it, he doesn’t jump them, so it’s just – he has really good instincts, and he kind of knows when to take his chances. He’s got great ball skills. When the ball is up in the air, he tracks it, makes interceptions, so he’s a really talented player. He’s a very confident player. You can see that he has a lot of confidence in his skill set, so you’re able to be aggressive, and he’s one of the – he’s an aggressive player. He doesn’t just give you easy throws out there.
If the Patriots are without receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins due to injury, Haden could be a big problem if used to shut down Julian Edelman. Edelman has been the most consistent—and trusted—receiver for the Patriots through 12 games.
If Edelman is locked down, that would leave Brady with Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski as his only legitimate options. Depth receivers Josh Boyce and Matthew Slater haven't shown the ability to be a true threat at this point of the season.
What They're Saying
Field Yates from ESPN.com has a great piece detailing on Gronkowski's impact on the Patriots offense. Anyone can see that improvements have been made, but Yates' numbers are pretty shocking.
When Gronkowski returned to the lineup, the Patriots ranked 22nd in points per game, a far cry from their league-leading total in 2012.
In the six games Gronkowski has played, the Patriots have scored the second-most points per game in the NFL, soaring to sixth in scoring for the full season.
The red zone offense, which struggled mightily minus Gronkowski (30th-best in the NFL), has been the fifth-best in the NFL since his return, due in part to the mismatches Gronkowski creates.
Gronkowski's impact is reflected not just in the team's success, but also that of individual players, as he's helped Brady round into form. Brady's QBR between Weeks 7-13 is third in the NFL, up 12 spots from the weeks preceding it.
The same could be said about running back Shane Vereen. The Patriots have averaged 29.3 points per game since Vereen has returned, including games against the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans—two of the top defenses in the league.
Whomever gets the credit, Yates is correct. The Patriots offense is hitting its stride.
Tale of the Tape
At this point, nobody knows who is going to be taking snaps for the Browns come Sunday. This isn't even a contest. Tom Brady is focused and in playoff mode.
Shane Vereen continues to struggle on wheel routes, but his dynamic ability on third down has been key in Tom Brady's resurgence. Unless Stevan Ridley plays, the remaining running backs on the Browns and Patriots are comparable.
With Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins on the mend, any hope of the Patriots winning this battle via depth went up in flames. Josh Gordon has been simply phenomenal over the last two weeks, averaging 249 yards per game.
Jordan Cameron has played very well this year, but Rob Gronkowski brings something special to the table. I like the promise of Browns tight end MarQueis Gray, but he hasn't been able to see the field much during his rookie year.
The Patriots offensive line will be tested against the stout Browns front seven, especially with its second- and third-string right tackles ailing. All-Pro Joe Thomas leads an underrated Browns offensive line.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are both playing at a high level, but the interior defensive line has proven too big of a liability. The Browns have an assortment of wide-bodied individuals who will give the Patriots interior line some trouble.
Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes have taken their lumps over the last couple of weeks, but I think they are better than Patriots fans are giving them credit for. If the defensive line can keep them a bit cleaner, they can make some plays.
He is just a rookie, but look for Barkevious Mingo to give Nate Solder some problems with his quickness and spin moves.
The Patriots still have a top-flight secondary despite some bumps and bruises. That said, you can't look past cornerback Joe Haden and the hard-hitting safety duo of T.J. Ward and Tashaun Gipson.
Stephen Gostkowski has been ridiculous this year. He hit two incredibly clutch 50-plus yard field goals to tie and then win the game against the Texans. Punter Ryan Allen has steadily improved as well during his rookie campaign.
Overall: Patriots 4-2-3
The tale of the tape favors the Patriots by a good margin. That said, the Patriots have been burned by the Browns before when a former Belichick confidant—former head coach Eric Mangini and current general manager Mike Lombardi—held a prominent position.
Wednesday's Injury Report Analysis
Did Not Participate: Aaron Dobson, Marcus Cannon, Brandon Spikes (not injury related)
Limited Participation: Michael Hoomanawanui, Kyle Arrington, Marquice Cole, Alfonzo Dennard, Steve Gregory, Rob Gronkowski, Aqib Talib, Chris White, Kenbrell Thompkins, Will Svitek
Full Participation: Danny Amendola, Tom Brady, Matthew Slater, Shane Vereen
Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins are both question marks for Sunday. As it was against Houston, the Patriots receiver depth will be tested.
Michael Hoomanawanui returned to practice in a limited fashion, but Will Svitek was added to the report. If he and Cannon are both unable to go at right tackle, the Patriots would be down to their fourth option. Josh Kline would be the odds-on favorite to take over.
For the Browns, the major news is on the quarterback front. Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell both missed practice on Wednesday. If they aren't able to play, Alex Tanney and Caleb Hanie are the remaining options for Cleveland.