FOXBORO, Mass. – This one hurt at times - literally.
"It was a physical game, a lot of hard hitting out there," New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick observed just moments after his team's 34-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns.
Unlike New England's previous four games, the Pats took a few solid punches from Cleveland on Sunday. Several times, New England players limped off the field (nearly all returned later in the game), including LB Adalius Thomas, CB Asante Samuel, and RB Kevin Faulk.
But New England inflicted some damage as well, knocking out Browns starting RB Jamal Lewis and WR Joe Jurevicius in the first half.
"It was good to come home against a different type of team that probably played us a little differently than they played some other teams," QB Tom Brady noted afterwards.
"It's good to come away with a win."
"I just don't think, on our end, it was executed the way we're capable of," Belichick added. "I think we can play better than that."
And yet, they still scored more than 30 points and held their opponent to less than 20.
Here are some of the reasons why.
Big plays on defense
While the Browns were able to move the football with some success Sunday, they couldn't convert when they needed to.
"Sometimes you have to bend but not break," S Rodney Harrison noted at his locker after the game, his first since returning from a four-game suspension.
The Patriots picked off three Derek Anderson passes (one in New England's end zone) and sacked him on three other occasions. And with about a minute left in the game, CB Randall Gay forced a fumble, recovered it, and maneuvered his way into the end zone for the final score of the game.
You can't ask for much more out of your defense.
"That was big, especially the one in the end zone," said Belichick. "I thought we played a little better in the red area. But we still need to do a better job of that."
"Whenever you make big plays like we did today," noted LB Junior Seau, who had the third two-interception game of his NFL career, "it leads to offense."
Spreading the wealth on offense
WR Randy Moss looked human for once.
He had less than 100 yards receiving and no touchdowns (for the first time this season), and a few incomplete attempts thrown his way.
No matter. TE Benjamin Watson took his place.
Watson, who didn't even start the game, notched his first-ever 100-yard receiving game at any level.
"Yeah, my whole career … ever … even at Georgia," Watson explained. "That's exciting. The main thing is, we got the 'W.'"
WR Wes Welker was limited as well, but the Pats offense had an answer: WR Donté Stallworth, who had four catches for 65 yards and his first TD as a Patriot.
"Yes, and I think both of those guys are big parts of this offense," Brady said of Watson and Stallworth.
"We need to find ways to get those guys involved and for them to be playmakers in this offense. They can make plays, you just have to get them the football. And both of them are great when they get the ball because they're very elusive and strong runners. And if they choose to double Randy and Wes, then those guys have to be parts of the passing game."
"It's great to have that versatility," Watson continued. "That's why you've always got to be ready. You never know when it's going to be your time to help the offense win the game."
RB Sammy Morris, meanwhile, filling in again for the inactive Laurence Maroney (groin injury), tallied his second-straight 100-yard rushing performance.
Doing the job on special teams
For the second week in a row, K Stephen Gostkowski was perfect on his scoring tries, nailing all his extra points and both his field goal attempts.
On kickoffs, New England allowed Browns return man Joshua Cribbs to make a few plays, but on punt returns, he was neutralized, thanks to the directional punting of Chris Hanson.
Belichick had said all week long that he was concerned about Cribbs' playmaking abilities. But on Sunday, his players did what they were coached to do to prevent him from having much of an impact.
Even when not at their best, they were good enough
Sure, they were ahead 20-0 at halftime, but, overall, the Patriots didn't play their best game. Their lethargic third quarter helped keep the Browns in the game longer than expected. Even the final minute was exciting, with the Browns nearly scoring with one second left.
Harrison summed up the team's performance best.
"Not to be able to bring your 'A' game, which you're not going to be able to do in this league each and every week … you've just got to find a way to win."
That's exactly what New England did this Sunday.