The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

If the Patriots Beat the Browns …

Posted on | November 13, 2021 | Comments Off on If the Patriots Beat the Browns …

Rookie defensive lineman Christian Barmore

Look, I don’t want to get too hyped up here. At 5-4, New England is still just one game above .500, but they’ve won three in a row after last week’s win over the Carolina Panthers and — interesting comparison — this is their first streak of three consecutive wins since Tom Brady led the Patriots to an 8-0 start in 2019. It is of course too early to compare rookie QB Mac Jones to Saint Thomas of Foxborough (for such is Brady’s status among Patriots fans), but if New England can get a convincing win in Sunday’s home game with Cleveland, fans will begin talking of the prospect of Roman numerals, IYKWIMAITYD.

Is that crazy? Perhaps, but after a 2-4 start, the Patriots have begun to gel as a team, integrating their rookies and free agents into Coach Bill Belichick’s system, and Sunday’s game will be a big test of whether they are serious playoff contenders. Most of the experts pick New England to win at home, but the consensus is a very close game with Cleveland, which is coming off an impressive 41-16 win over Cincinnati. The word “physical” is being used in a lot of forecasts for this game, as the Browns rely on their muscular offensive line to move the ball on the ground and, even with star RB Nick Chubb out of the lineup due to COVID-19, Cleveland’s running game is still very powerful.

New England’s defense has been impressive, and were crucial to last week’s victory over Carolina. Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson — picked up by Belichick as an undrafted free agent out of Maryland three years ago — had two interceptions, including a pick-six. During this week’s “Belichick Breakdown” video, the coach explained how Jackson’s pick-six was made possible by the heads-up play of defensive lineman Christian Barmore and linebacker Matthew Judon. Barmore, a rookie out of Alabama — Roll Tide! — was not fooled by the play-action and was pursuing Panthers QB Sam Darnold, while Judon released from his coverage of the tight end to add more pressure on Darnold, who made a desperation pass that Jackson picked off and returned for the TD.

The Patriots’ defense has allowed only about 19 points per game, but that includes giving up 28 points in an early loss to New Orleans and 35 points to the Cowboys. Their past two road wins — 24-6 at Carolina and 27-24 at the Chargers — are more typical of how well New England is playing on defense, and most experts predict a score Sunday in the range of Patriots 24, Browns 21. Almost no one thinks Cleveland will get more than three touchdowns in Foxborough, and if the Patriots defense can hold the score down, it’s a winnable game. When you compare the Browns and Patriots in their games against common opponents (the Texans and Chargers), New England’s defense looks stronger. Cleveland gave up 21 points to the Texans, while the Patriots allowed 22, but the Chargers beat the Browns 47-42 — with Los Angeles QB Justin Herbert throwing for nearly 400 yards — which suggests that Cleveland’s secondary is vulnerable. That means it’s up to Mac Jones on Sunday.

Both of New England’s top running backs, Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, missed practice all week due to concussion protocols, and are listed as “questionable” to play Sunday. That means the Patriots will probably have only Brandon Bolden and J.J. Taylor in the running game, which would in turn put more pressure on Mac to have a solid performance at quarterback. You’ve got to think Jones has been watching a lot of film of that Browns-Chargers game, looking to rack up a 400-yard game against Cleveland, but Patriots fans would be happy if their rookie QB can just have an average game, since Jones currently ranks 15th among NFL quarterbacks, ahead of such veterans as Ben Roethlisberger and (ahem) Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield.

Early in the season, Jones had problems because the Patriots were rebuilding their offensive line. Mac’s been sacked 17 times, but still has managed to rank 9th in completion percentage and 10th in total completions. His yards per pass attempt is only 19th in the league, but that’s better than Roethlisberger or KC’s vaunted Patrick Mahomes.

So while Sunday’s game will be crucial in terms of New England’s chances for winning Super Bowl LVI making the playoffs, it is also likely to be a major test for Mac Jones. His performance as a rookie has been endlessly analyzed and critiqued by ESPN panelists and other commentators, but Jones undeniably has the ability to become a great quarterback. We have seen the evidence with our own eyes, as when Mac came back after throwing a pick-six against the Cowboys and, on his next play from scrimmage, hit Kendrick Bourne for a 75-yard TD.

If you watch the video, you’ll see Jones drops back to his own 15-yard line, and the pass hits Bourne at the Dallas 45, meaning it traveled 40 yards in the air — and yet critics say Jones has a “weak” arm?

That play just happened to be the longest TD pass by a New England quarterback since Tom Brady in 2017. And the week after their loss to Dallas, the Patriots hung 54 points on the Jets, with Mac throwing for 307 yards and two touchdowns. Everybody reacted to that the same way, “Yeah, but it’s the Jets.” However, the Patriots haven’t lost a game since, and return to Foxborough this Sunday just a half-game behind the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East. If they can avoid mistakes and play their best game, there’s no reason New England can’t dominate Cleveland. This game will get the widest national TV coverage of any Patriots game so far this year, and if they turn in a truly dominant performance? Well, I expect I won’t be the only one talking Roman numerals then.



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