Despite some offensive superlatives from Daniel Graham (7 catches, 110 yards), Kevin Faulk (23 rushes, 96 yards, 6 catches for 58 yards) and Tom Brady (20 of 33 for 259), the Patriots could not manage a single touchdown against a stout Cleveland defense.
Turns out they didn't need one as the defense took care of things, led by Mike Vrabel's three sacks, Rodney Harrison's 10 tackles and a game-ending interception by Ty Law.
Linebacker Tedy Bruschi joked after the win, New England's fourth in a row, that the defense doesn't necessarily come into games thinking that it has to win the contest for the team, but sometimes it just turns out that way.
"When we get up by 21 points we don't think that, but sometimes we have to have that mentality," Bruschi said. "We were talking on the sideline, 'We have to do more.' We were doing well but we had to do more. We had to get a turnover or something like that. That didn't happen, but we were able to keep Cleveland on the other side of the field which made them go the long length of the field a lot of times today."
On the day, the Browns managed only 155 yards through the air and 84 on the ground.
So it came down to field position and field goals with the Patriots winning in both categories to the tune of 9-3.
New England once again entered the game with a long injury list but Cleveland also had its share, mainly on its offensive line, running back and quarterback positions. Starting back William Green was a late scratch and Tim Couch got the nod at quarterback but left the game with a sprained thumb, giving way to a banged-up Kelly Holcomb.
The Patriots couldn't have asked for a better beginning to this one. With Couch being sacked for a 13 yard loss by Mike Vrabel on the Browns first possession, Cleveland punted from its own 15. Troy Brown's return gave New England the ball first and 10 at the 49.
Bethel Johnson started the game and lined up wide to the left and Brady hit him for a 45-yard pick-up on the first play of the game for the offense. But after an intentional grounding call on Brady, not much else ensued and Vinatieri came on for a 27-yard field goal to make the early score Patriots 3, Browns 0.
Vrabel had another sack a little later in the game. The play was ruled a fumble on the field but replay clearly showed it was almost an exact reenactment of the now-famous tuck rule in the Patriots Snow Bowl win of 2001, and the call was overturned, forcing a Browns punt.
"I think first and foremost we put a lot into this game," Vrabel said after his impressive performance coming back from a broken arm. "We knew how important it was and at what time in the season we were at. You could start to go one way or the other and we knew it was important with the schedule that we had coming up that we needed to win this football game."
Offensively, the game bogged down for both sides as the first half progressed until Brady found Daniel Graham for completions of 27 and 18 on New England's fifth possession of the game. On third and 8 from the Browns 19, Brady was sacked for the second time in the game and Vinatieri came on for a 43 yard attempt. The kick was good but negated by a holding call on Dan Koppen. That moved the attempt back 5 yards and this time, Vinatieri missed wide left.
As time in the first half ticked away, Cleveland finally began to move the ball with short, underneath passes mostly over the middle. At this point, Couch had left the game with a sprained thumb and Kelly Holcomb replaced him.
Down at the Patriots 12, the New England defense had the answer to three straight pass plays, one batted down by Vrabel, and Cleveland's Phil Dawson kicked a 29-yard field goal to tie the game at 3.
Graham continued his big day in the second half with a 22-yard catch to start off New England's second possession. Brady's pass turned the tight end around but Graham made a nice catch to put his yardage numbers over 100 for the day, the first time in his career. From there, it was mostly Kevin Faulk, including a 14-yard run, but once inside the Browns red zone, the Patriots could get no closer than the 9-yard line and Vinatieri hit his second field goal of the game.
Despite the close score, New England was winning the game of field position. That tilted even more in the Patriots favor when Ken Walter booted a 53-yard punt that Bethel Johnson downed at the Cleveland 1 midway through the fourth quarter. The Browns did well to get some breathing room up to the 25 but Vrabel's third sack of the game on third and 12 knocked Holcomb and his offense back to the 10.
"I am just proud to be a member of this team," Bruschi said of the team win. "Sometimes you just have to play tight, you have to play clean. You have to trust your special teams to punt the ball and punt return to get some better field positions, play the field position battles sometimes. We got backed up a little bit, we make a couple of first downs, a nice punt and all of a sudden the field position is back switched the other way. We hold them and all of the sudden our offense is receiving the punt at mid field. So That's the way we have to play sometimes, cohesively as a unit offensive, defensive and special teams units."
After the Chris Gardocki punt, the Patriots took over on their own 40. Six Faulk carries netted 26 yards with Troy Brown actually taking a direct snap under center for a 3-yard first down conversion. But once again, New England could not find the end zone against the tough Browns defense and Vinatieri was brought on for his third field goal, this one a 38-yarder.
Patriots guard Damien Woody acknowledged that the New England defense played a key role in the win, but was also proud of what the offense did in its share of the win.
"We scored some points as far as field goals," Woody said. "And we wore them down a little bit on defense. That's really the type of ball we play around here. I think it was a good win for us today."
Down 9-3, Cleveland took over from its own 33 with 1:59 left in the game. With the Patriot defense's ears pinned back, it looked like it would be a quick series for the Browns. Good pressure caused Holcomb's first pass to miss its mark and Dan Klecko followed that up with a second down sack for a 9-yard loss. After a 4-yard pick-up, Holcomb was faced with a fourth and 15 from his own 28 but found Kevin Johnson for 16 yards and the first down.
Now working from their 45, Cleveland decided to take a shot to Johnson down the right sideline. Not a good idea with Ty Law in coverage. The Patriots cornerback managed to get good position on Johnson and made the interception to essentially end the game.
To a man, the player in the Patriots locker room were happy to walk away with the win, regardless of how ugly or low scoring it might have been.
"That's the NFL," Woody said. "You never know what can happen in this league. We are grateful to be 6-2. We've worked really hard to this point, but there is nothing to being 6-2. There is no championship or trophies or anything like that. We still have another half a season to play and we just have to get ready for Denver in a critical game this upcoming Monday night.
"Winning four consecutive games you start to build confidence. Once you start building confidence, that's really key. What we want to do is keep putting the heat on the other guys in the division. Now the other guys are looking, 'Hey the Patriots won today. We have to keep up.' So that's what winning does."
"I think for the most part if we can just stay together and stay consistent and continue to play smart, tough aggressive football we'll be fine," defensive lineman Richard Seymour said.
With the win, New England improves to 6-2 and stays atop the AFC East. They will face the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football next week.