FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Just over 28 years ago, a rookie named Bill Belichick won his first game as an NFL head coach. September 8, 1991, Belichick's Cleveland Browns defeated the Patriots here in New England by a score of 20-0.
Sunday, with the same two teams in the same town but on the opposite sideline, Belichick sought to secure his 300th victory as an NFL boss (including playoffs and Super Bowls).
"It was pretty cool," was how newly-acquired WR Mohamed Sanu described his first game as a Patriot. "[Co-captain Matthew] Slater gave probably the best post-game speech I've ever heard in my life. It was unbelievable. I was ready to go play another whole game!"
Once the Browns and Patriots traded punts on their opening possessions, New England, on its second drive, went for it on 4th-and-7 from the Cleveland 33-yard line. QB Tom Brady found WR Julian Edelman for the first-down pickup to keep it moving, and kicker Mike Nugent eventually added an old extra point-like 20-yard field goal.
When QB Baker Mayfield and the Browns got the ball back, they only had it for two plays, the second of which resulted in a Patriots touchdown. Cleveland RB Nick Chubb was stuffed at the line of scrimmage, but one of his own linemen accidentally kicked the ball out of Chubb's grasp.
LB Dont'a Hightower spotted the loose ball, scooped it up from the turf, and raced 26-yards untouched for the score. Nugent added the PAT to put the Patriots up 10-0 with just under six minutes to play in the first quarter.
"We play together and play our role on defense. When we continually do that," DL Lawrence Guy observed, "good plays happen, and it shows up."
Punter and kickoff specialist Jake Bailey made his first really glaring mistake in the latter department when he sent the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, resulting in the Browns getting the ball at New England's 40-yard line.
Chubb seemed to take immediate advantage by squirting through several would-be tacklers and racing for what at first looked like a sure touchdown. However, speedster CB Jonathan Jones came to the rescue by chasing Chubb down and forcing him to fumble at the Patriots' 12. Safety Devin McCourty came up with the ball at the bottom of a pig pile inside the New England 5.
"Just hustle. This whole defense hustles," maintained Jones. "We fly around to the ball, and everybody's accountable to everybody [else]. We give 100-percent effort to get to the ball.
"[Chubb] made a good play to break it, he was headed to the end zone. I was able to chase him down punch the ball. I was able to get it out. Maybe the rain was a key part of it," Jones explained to reporters at his locker afterward. "Applying pressure to the ball, we knew it was going to be raining today. I felt like we did a good job of that – punch at it, swipe at it, whatever we had to do to get it out."
"Straight effort," Guy remarked about Jones' forced fumble. "It was one of those – it was a momentum change. He saved a touchdown… just great hustle."
Bailey punted to Cleveland at the end of that drive, but once again, the Patriots' D helped set up a New England TD. Mayfield took a shotgun snap and tried to complete and awkward two-handed shovel pass to WR Jarvis Landry, but Guy muscled his way into the backfield and intercepted the hot potato.
That gave the ball to New England and the Cleveland 11.
"Oh, I saw the ball coming, like, 'Oh, he threw me the ball!' It's the first time it happened [to me]," Guy beamed later. "Now I've got to protect it and make sure it doesn't come out of my hands. Hopefully we can go back and score."
Two plays later, the Patriots did, as Brady found Edelman on a crossing route. Edelman cradled the ball and leapt over the goal line. With Nugent's extra point, the Patriots took a 17-0 lead as the first stanza drew to a close.
"He's got more interceptions than me," Jones laughed. "Great play. He got off the ball, and [Mayfield] gave it right to him."
"Tell [Jones] I appreciate that," Guy quipped, "but he's got more sacks than I do."
Despite all the miscues in the opening quarter, in the middle of the second, Mayfield was able to do something unusual – throw a touchdown pass against this Patriots "boogeyman"-led defense. TE Demetrius Harris caught a great back-shoulder throw at the goal line, beating Hightower's otherwise tight coverage on the play.
Facing another fourth-down, this time at the Browns' 24-yard line, the Patriots decided to eschew another Nugent field goal attempt. Brady subsequently completed his first pass to newcomer Sanu at the 20, right at the yard to gain. Cleveland challenged, but lost.
"We actually talked about that look very early in the week," Sanu revealed. "[Brady] said, 'Be alert,' and we were on the same page. It was pretty cool. Elements didn't matter. Guys were really excited to have me out there and I was really excited to be out there. We made a whole bunch of plays on defense. We're figuring some things out on offense. Made some mistakes on my end, but we'll get it fixed."
All the Patriots could manage on that drive was a 29-yard Nugent field goal attempt, which Cleveland blocked. That marked the first time New England had a field goal snuffed out since 2006. The score remained 17-7 as intermission arrived.
Mayfield and the Browns' O came out of the halftime locker room and put together a sustained scoring drive, ending in a 38-yard field goal to chip away at the Patriots' lead.
Struggling to move the ball heretofore, New England's offense responded. On 3rd-and-10 from their own 16, Brady dumped a screen pass off to RB James White, who, thanks to some nice downfield blocking, scampered 59 yards to the Browns' 25. Brady later scrambled around in the backfield before firing another TD strike to Edelman. New England doubled its lead to 24-10.
"Man, I can't wait to be on that page. That was a sight to see," Sanu said of the Brady-Edelman connection. "It's going to be like that soon."
Early in the fourth quarter, in fact, big-gain receptions by Sanu and TE Benjamin Watson helped New England move the ball into scoring position. Nugent tacked on a 29-yard kick to finish off the Patriots' scoring for the evening.
Later, when Cleveland attempted a 4th-and-16 deep in their own end, the Patriots' D chased him down for a turnover-on-downs sack. Nugent badly hooked a 34-yard boot at the end of that ensuing possession, however, to keep the score as-is.
Miscues notwithstanding, this Browns offense posed the most difficult questions that have been asked of the league-leading Patriots defense this season.
"It was a different game," CB Stephon Gilmore acknowledged. "There are different challenges each and every week. I can't say it was the toughest, it was just a different challenge this week – different players, different scheme."
"Every game's the toughest challenge," Guy remarked. "We don't look at one team less than another. This [Cleveland] team played their best game and played it hard. I give them all the kudos for what they did. They didn't give up. It's a very difficult team. It was a good game to watch and a good game to play in."
Over the next month and a half, the Patriots will continue to face challenges like this, or perhaps tougher, as they meet teams with legitimate winning records – something they haven't experienced much over the first half of this 2019 regular season.
McCourty conveyed to reporters that part of Slater's aforementioned post-game message to teammates was that there is opinion and there is truth, and the Patriots must stay focused on this particular truth: They need to keep improving if they want to achieve their ultimate goal.
After eight games, they're halfway there with a spotless record – one of only two teams in the league right now who can say that (San Francisco is the other). And Belichick is in the NFL history books as just the third coach ever to reach 300 victories (Don Shula, 347, and George Halas, 342, are the others).