For the second week in a row the Patriots defense beat the opposition at its own game to lead New England to a huge 27-16 victory over Cleveland to greatly improve the team's postseason aspirations.
New England (8-5) has played the two best teams in turnover ratio in the Jets last week and the Browns on Sunday. In both games the Patriots had a plus-two advantage in the turnover battle. Against Cleveland, three interceptions and a fumble recovery helped quell Cleveland drives and keep the Browns out of the end zone.
In fact, the defense did not allow a touchdown. With three sacks and a ton of pressure on quarterback Tim Couch, New England prevented the Browns from getting much going offensively. Cleveland ran 19 times for just 50 yards, and Couch was roughed up while completing just 20-of-39 passes for 244 yards.
The defense was led by the linebacking trio of Roman Phifer, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel. Those three combined for 30 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a pass defensed, while strong safety Lawyer Milloy contributed nine tackles, ½ a sack and a fumble recovery.
"Defensively I thought we did a decent job only giving up three field goals," Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "There were a couple of long drives, but we were able to keep them out of the end zone, and those were big points for us to save."
Troy Brown made sure the defensive effort did not go to waste. His 85-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter gave New England the lead for good at 17-10. He also had a big day in the offense, leading the team with seven catches for 89 yards.
With his performance, Brown set a new personal best for receptions and yardage for a season, finishing the night with 85 receptions and 1,033 yards, making him just the sixth player in team history with 1,000 yards in one season.
The punt return by Brown was set up by a couple of huge blocks, one each by Milloy and Richard Seymour. Milloy got the first block on linebacker Dwayne Rudd, which sprung Brown into the clear. The last guy back to stop Brown was punter Chris Gardocki, who was flattened by Seymour.
On the ensuing Cleveland possession, the Browns were able to drive from their own 30 to the Patriots 20. Couch tried to hit Kevin Johnson, but Terrell Buckley got his second interception in as many weeks to kill the scoring chance. The play was doubly painful for Cleveland when the Patriots got a field goal just before the half to turn a one-possession game into a 20-10 halftime advantage for New England.
The running game struggled for the Patriots ( 33 carries for 81 yards), but running back Antowain Smith came up big in the red zone. He scored touchdowns on runs of 1 and 5 yards, the latter of which sealed the game with 2:43 to go.
"It took us a while to get the running game going," Smith said. "We got it going at the right times and we were able to get it in the end zone. We got enough push up front."
Quarterback Tom Brady had a bit of a rough outing, throwing for two interceptions and no touchdowns. Corey Fuller returned the first interception 44 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to give Cleveland a 10-3 lead, its only lead of the game. That was Brady's first pick in 10 quarters and 62 attempts, the last one coming in the loss to St. Louis.
Brady finished 19-of-28 (67.8 percent) for 218 yards. His streak of four straight games of completing 70 percent or more was snapped.
Heading into the game, the Patriots were ½ a game ahead of Cleveland in the Wild Card race. Not only did the Patriots push the Browns back a game, but a loss by the New York Jets to Pittsburgh also moved New England into second place in the division, a full game behind the 8-3 Miami Dolphins.
Second-year player David Nugent got his first career start, opening the game at defensive tackle in place of Brandon Mitchell. Wide receiver Charles Johnson started in a three-receiver set in place of fullback Marc Edwards.
The inactives for New England were cornerbacks Leonard Myers and Ben Kelly; tight end Arther Love; linebacker Bryan Cox; defensive end Willie McGinest; and offensive lineman Kenyatta Jones. Damon Huard was the emergency, third-string quarterback.
Wide receiver Terry Glenn returned to the field and had four catches for 67 yards.
With his 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, Antowain Smith got his 10th score of the season. He is the first Patriot with at least 10 touchdowns in one season since Curtis Martin in 1996. Later in the game Brown tied Irving Fryar for the second-longest punt return in team history with his 85-yard return.
With his sack Sunday, Richard Seymour now has 3.5 on the season, two more than he had his senior season at Georgia.
Fellow defensive lineman Anthony Pleasant got his second interception of the season after going the first 12 years of his career without a pick.