While Bill Belichick's Patriots (9-3) are in the midst of another December run toward the postseason, Cleveland (4-8) comes to Gillette Stadium this Sunday playing out the string on another disappointing season. After winning three games in a row to improve to 3-2 in early October, Rob Chudzinski's team has lost six of its last seven games, including the last three in a row. While Tom Brady is rounding into form as the New England offense hits its stride, Cleveland continues to fail to find a healthy, productive quarterback to bring consistency to the most important position in sports. Cleveland brings a gritty defense and a couple of impressive playmakers on offense. But this is a home game in which the Patriots are clearly favored to improve on the team's 46-6 record in the month of December dating back to 2001. It may not be the most anticipated matchup, but it's another chance for Belichick's Patriots to pick up momentum heading toward January against the team that gave the coach his first head coaching job. After you plow through some Christmas shopping at the mall, unwind and prepare for another Sunday afternoon of NFL action with this we-wish-Brian-Hoyer-was-playing edition of the Browns at Patriots Pregame Six-Pack!
- Flash Gordon** – The most impressive thing the Browns have going for them at this point of the team's rebuilding/overhaul process under a new regime is second-year receiver Josh Gordon. The big-bodied, big-play target set an NFL record with consecutive games with more than 200 receiving yards over the last two weeks. But he's been putting up huge numbers all year despite the seemingly weekly changes at quarterback. Gordon was suspended for the first two weeks for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. He was supposedly on the trading block at the deadline and is a slip-up away from a full-year suspension. He leads the team with 64 catches and seven touchdowns, while ranking second in the NFL with 1,249 yards. He's averaging a crazy 19.5 yards a catch and has a 95-yard touchdown among his big plays. With veteran Jason Campbell expected to start, Gordon at least has an experienced, proven quarterback looking to get him the ball. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots try to deal with the hottest receiver in the league. The way things were going early in the year, he'd be a likely matchup for Aqib Talib in a battle of big, physical athletes. But Talib continues to battle his hip injury and the Patriots chose not to match him up with Andre Johnson a week ago. New England's zone coverages in Houston left something to be desired. Talib may not be healthy enough to fly solo with Gordon, but if he can get in the younger receiver's face with some help behind it would likely be New England best defense. Belichick usually succeeds in taking away an opponent's top weapon on offense. In this one that is clearly Gordon. How New England stops him with a banged up secondary is one specific reason to watch this came closely, especially with Kyle Arrington (groin) and Alfonzo Dennard (knee, and missed two days of practice while making court appearances in Nebraska) questionable to play.
- Week of weakness** – Sometimes key matchups pit two teams' strengths facing off. Not so much in this battle. In this one, there will be a lot riding on the matchup of New England's struggling run defense against Willis McGahee and the Browns non-existent running game. The Patriots have allowed opponents to average 4.3 yards or better as a team on the ground in five straight games and 4.5 yards on the year. Cleveland averages just 3.7 yards per carry on the year as a team, while McGahee averages a dismal 2.8 yards per rush as the Browns lead back. The Patriots allowed four rushing touchdowns last week. The Browns have two rushing touchdowns all season, both for McGahee. Brandon Spikes has been battling a knee injury behind a line that's struggled. Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have played a lot of snaps as rookies. Isaac Sopoaga hasn't brought the presence the Patriots were probably hoping for when they added the veteran at the deadline. Still, if there is a team the Patriots should be able to slow down on the ground and build some confidence against, it's the Browns. Of course the flipside is also true. If the Patriots continue to struggle to stop the run that would be another sign that the run defense is what is has appeared to be at this point – a major weakness.
- Start 'em up** – Clearly a major focus for the Patriots this week is to start fast. The last three weeks have seen the team dig holes of at least 10-0. Sure New England climbed out of two of those holes, but that's not exactly the winning formula for a team looking to make a Super Bowl run that begins in a month. The question is – how does a team suddenly start getting off to a fast start? Pretend it's the second half? (Although New England actually struggled in the third quarter earlier this year and has been outscored 72-71 in the third for the season.) Players and coaches will clearly say it's all execution. That's true. Eliminate the turnovers and negative plays and that would be a big step toward first-quarter success. Regardless of what exactly the solution is, clearly Belichick, Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have been pondering ways to get things going early. Now it's up to them and the rest of the players to make it happen on the field in front of the home crowd that's had to boo its team off the field in the second quarter twice already this fall. No one wants that to happen again Sunday against the seemingly inferior Browns. But until Brady and Co. make it happen, there will be some doubt.
- Back to backfield** – As much as the Patriots passing offense has been cruising in recent weeks, there remains major questions with the team's backfield and running game. Stevan Ridley is at the center of that all. He was inactive last week after losing fumbles in the previous three games in a row. In his absence the Patriots mustered a mere 88 yards and 3.3-yard average as a team in Houston. No ball carrier averaged better than 3.8 yards a touch against the Texans. Shane Vereen has had exactly 10 carriers each of the last two weeks, while Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount have actually led the team with 13 and 12 carries in those two games, respectively. There is little doubt that Ridley can be the Patriots best runner, proven in his 1,200-yard season a year ago. But it's no certainty at this point that he's going to even be active against the Browns solid run defense, never mind be the leading ball carrier. Cleveland sports the NFL's No. 5 rush defense and allows just 3.5 yards per carry. Regardless of who's handling the ball, it may be a struggle to get things going on the ground against the Browns. Really, though, the most important question with the New England rushing attack is whether it will include Ridley. Only Belichick knows the answer to that.
- Tight ends in focus** – Rob Gronkowski is once again proving himself as the center of the Patriots passing attack as well as arguably the most unique, irreplaceable weapon in the NFL. He's found the end zone in four straight games. He has three 100-yard efforts is just six games. He's already second on the team in receptions and yards while tied for the lead with four touchdown receptions. There is little question that from a Browns perspective Gronk is the key to any defensive game plan. Belichick said the Browns have the best coverage linebackers in the middle of the pass defense that New England has faced all year. Cleveland also sports a solid, young playmaking duo at safety in T.J. Ward and Tashaun Gipson. But Gronkowski is obviously a challenge of a different caliber. He's also not the only impressive tight end in this game. Jordan Cameron has 63 catches for 704 yards with six touchdown catches as Cleveland's No. 2 target. Cameron is an athletic former basketball player who's cooled off as the season has worn on. He hasn't found the end zone since mid-October but Cameron is clearly capable of giving the middle of the Patriots pass defense problems. While New England will be focusing on taking Gordon away, Cameron can't be lost in the mix. Devin McCourty is the only really healthy defensive back these days in New England and he'll likely see some of Cameron on Sunday. Gronk and Cameron are going in different direction in terms of their recent production, but each is capable of lighting things up a bit in the passing game.
6. Houston's cousin – The Cleveland defense has a lot in common with New England's opponent a week ago, the Texans. The Browns are No. 4 in the NFL in terms of yards allowed overall – No. 5 against both the pass and the run taken separately. But the Browns have some suspect numbers elsewhere in terms of defense. The team is tied for 27th in the league with a minus-9 turnover differential, while only four teams have fewer than Cleveland's 14 takeaways. The Browns are also 29th in the red zone defense and slightly below average tied for 19th in points allowed. Put it all together and the Patriots should be once again expected to put up a decent number of points against a good but not great defense. Cleveland has 15 different guys with at least one sack, 12 different guys with multiple sacks. But no player has more than four. Joe Haden leads the team with four interceptions and is having a Pro Bowl season. But the corner likely won't be tasked with taking away either of New England's two more productive weapons of late – Gronkowski and Vereen. The Browns aren't a pushover on defense and neither were the Texans. Brady led the Patriots to 34 points in Houston, even with a slow start on the road. A faster start at home against a similar defense might just lead to as many points or even more. New England's offense is playing pretty great right now, so a matchup with a decent but not near great defense is a very positive scenario.
There hasn't been much buildup or hype around this matchup with the Browns. The clear expectation is that the Patriots are the better team and favored to win in pretty easy fashion at Gillette Stadium. I agree wholeheartedly with that line of thinking. I expect that New England will get off to a faster start, including spreading things out and throwing it all over the field on what should be a clear and relatively mild day. Brady and Gronkowski have been hot and building steam. Cleveland now has a starter at quarterback in Campbell, but that might not mean much. It's unlikely New England will completely shut down Gordon, but it's also unlikely Belichick will let one really dangerous weapon beat his defense. I can easily see a 10- or 14-point first-quarter lead and the Patriots cruising from there. Look for Gronkowski to find the end zone again. Maybe Josh Boyce will even get into the action with a deep ball later in the contest. Brady will certainly find some success against a team that doesn't force many turnovers. Defensively New England should be able to shut down McGahee and Co. Mix in a little coverage and maybe a little pressure from Chandler Jones/Rob Ninkovich and both sides of the ball have a chance to have some early December fun in this one. I wouldn't be surprised to see a blowout against a Browns team that's allowed 32 or more points to lesser offenses than the Patriots in two of the last three weeks. So I'll go with a 38-13 victory for the home team as New England looks to build momentum heading toward January. Hopefully the recent 34-31 scares are a thing of the past now.