Bill Belichick's fears were alleviated about five seconds into Sunday's game at Cleveland. That's when Bethel Johnson caught Phil Dawson's opening kickoff at his 6-yard line and raced untouched 94 yards for a touchdown to give New England a quick 7-0 lead.
It was a critical play because Belichick spoke all week about the emotion a team can play with in the first game following a mid-year coaching change – the type the Browns underwent last week when Butch Davis stepped down in favor of interim coach Terry Robiskie.
Johnson's huge play was the kind of message New England needed to send to Cleveland as if to say, "Uh-uh. Not today and not against us. We're ready."
The Patriots were indeed ready. Despite a sluggish offensive start, New England opened up a 21-0 lead that was 21-7 at halftime and 42-15 when the final gun sounded. But it was the start of each half that keyed the victory.
"Bethel's kickoff return set the tone," Belichick said. "That was the kind of play that can counterattack that emotion [that Cleveland potentially had from the coaching change.]"
Belichick's knowledge of that emotion, he explained last week, was a product of first hand experience and involved one of the more talented Patriots teams in history. It was in 1976 when the Lions staff he coached on made a head coaching change four games into the season after a 1-3 start with the 3-1 Patriots coming to town. Playing loose and with nothing to lose, the Lions crushed New England, 30-10, that day for one of the Patriots three regular season losses. Belichick did not want to see that type of thing happen to his Patriots club and the quick touchdown basically ensured that it wouldn't.
It also had to be demoralizing for Cleveland who, after losing the coin toss, needed a fast defensive start to help out rookie quarterback Luke McCown, who was making his first career start.
The Browns did have a fast defensive start, sacking Tom Brady twice on New England's opening possession and certainly seemed to play with plenty of emotion early on, particularly on defense.
But the Johnson's return, which was set up by Patrick Pass' sealing block that set him free into the open field, helped New England deal with an initial onslaught until things settled down. Once they did, Corey Dillon took over to control the ball in the first half. He had 98 rushing yards at the break and finished with 100 after a leg injury limited him to one second-half carry.
Cleveland did drive to an 11-play 70-yard touchdown drive just before the end of the half and seized some momentum going into the locker room knowing it would get the ball to start the second half.
But three plays into the third quarter New England made another huge play that all but eliminated any comeback thoughts for the Browns. On third-and-two from the Browns 47, William Green ran to his left, but a penetrating Richard Seymour hit him in the backfield and forced a fumble that Randall "Blue" Gay returned 41 yards for a touchdown.
"We made some big plays at the start of each half," Belichick said. "And it was a solid effort all around."
"The kickoff return was a huge momentum boost and we carried it through," Brady said. "Then we needed to see how it was going to go in the second half and Blue Gay scored on a big play for us that really helped [us take control.]"
There were 133 plays in Sunday's game, but those two were as critical to the outcome as any of the other 131. In a game when emotion figured to play a part, New England made sure talent trumped that. The Patriots hadn't had a big play in the return game all season, but if there was ever a time to get one at the start of a game, Johnson's play was it against the unpredictable Browns.
Playing on the road in front of team with nothing to lose, Johnson's touchdown all but ended the game before it started. Those are the types of plays New England will need down the stretch as the weather makes it tougher to throw the ball with great success.
Brady, incidentally, wasn't overly pleased with the offensive performance after the game, calling it "inconsistent," but he hit the nail on the head when he followed that by saying, "we took care of business."
Don't they always seem to do that?