Bill Belichick made it clear in his Wednesday press conference that it's all about Cleveland this week.
The New England coach was right, because that's where Tom Brady will make his triumphant return to the NFL as the Patriots (3-1) take on the scrappy but winless Browns (0-4).
While Belichick did his best to dissuade the media and his players from talking about Brady and his return from his four-game Deflategate suspension, the reality is that it's by far the biggest story of the football weekend.
Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 5 matchup with the Browns.
Oh, and by the way, it's the biggest factor in the New England game plan preparing for the Hue Jackson's young Browns.
No longer will Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels be trying to scheme things up for rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett or balance out the offense for inexperienced Jimmy Garoppolo.
Nope. Even if there are concerns about Brady's timing and rust, the 39-year-old legend returns to bring normalcy to the Patriots spread, pass-first offensive attack. And that unit gets its chance to shine against a Browns defense that ranks in the bottom third of the NFL and lacks many playmaking pace-setters outside of veteran cornerback Joe Haden.
The first month of football was interesting and successful in New England. Now, though, it's time to get back to Brady-led business against the Browns.
And the hope is that if there is any rust for TB12, this trip to a seasonably warm Sunday afternoon affair in Cleveland against Browns will offer the chance to work out the kinks.
As Brady finalizes the preparations to reintroduce himself to the football-watching world here are a few keys to the Patriots chances to bounce back against the Browns.
Tom's time and timing - With Brady back the Patriots offense could very well return to its spread roots. A week after Jacoby Brissett completed just one throw to the combo of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan, action against the Cleveland lackluster defense should offer up more traditional passing game numbers. Brady will be looking to avoid throwing in Joe Haden's direction, but otherwise should find room to work in the air. It's certainly possible that Brady may be a little rusty and that his timing may not be perfect. That may be more an issue with newcomers like Martellus Bennett and maybe Hogan, but he should quickly get up speed with the likes of Edelman and his other familiar faces. One factor that can be an issue for Brady at times is being too emotional and two jazzed up for a big game. But he should be able to that under control quickly enough to then get into an aerial groove with his guys.
Corral Crowell - There is no doubt the Patriots key on defense is dealing with the Browns No. 1 rushing attack led by Isaiah Crowell. The back is second in the NFL in yards and has a crazy 6.5-yard average. He can hit big plays and the Patriots are coming off a game in which their tackling was an issue on defense. New England got ready for this key battle with a practice in full pads on Thursday. Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower will be at the forefront of the defensive attack against Crowell and Duke Johnson, who also averages better than 6 yards per carry. It should help that the team is likely to activate defensive end Rob Ninkovich from suspension to set the edge up front, as Chris Long has been a little inconsistent in that area. The safeties also could do a better job helping out in the run fits. It will take a team effort up front, but the Patriots certainly have the horses to get the job done against Crowell and the rest of the Browns rushing attack.
White about now? - With Brady back there is a chance New England may have even more spread, one-back sets. That could mean more chances for James White to make plays in the passing back role that's generally a key for the Patriots when things are rolling in the passing game. White is third on the team with 13 catches in four games, but hasn't made as many big plays to open the new year as he did late last season working with Brady. White is just one of a number of players who could see a boost with Brady back.
Gronkowski needs to be Gronk- Speaking of guys who might benefit from Brady's return, tight end Rob Gronkowski could be at the top of the list. Big No. 87 just hasn't been himself, catching just one pass in two games played while returning from his hamstring injury. He's been more a blocker than an option in the passing game. That needs to change for the Patriots to reach the heights of their offensive potential. A couple years ago Gronkowski helped make Brady himself again in a Week 5 win over the Bengals. Maybe Brady can return the favor against another Ohio football squad and help make Gronkowski back into the dominating playmaker that is Gronk
Heady as it goes on defense - Hue Jackson likes to get creative on offense with a wide variety of shifts, motions and scheme runs. There will certainly be some of that this week. Terrelle Pryor is a factor in a lot of the plays - he's also the Browns leading receiver with 19 catches -- but so is Crowell. The Patriots front will need to react and adjust well to avoid the types of big plays that can swing momentum and keep a home underdog, and its Dawg Pound, in the game. Assignment defense and tackling need to go hand in hand for New England this week.
No biggie - The Patriots have done a very good job in avoiding giving up big plays on defense this year save for the second half against Miami. That's probably the second key to the defensive game plan yet again. Keeping everything in front and tackling well would force rookie mid-round quarterback Cody Kessler to put together long drives. Though the youngster has played reasonably well, it's unlikely he could do so with enough regularity to keep up with what Brady and the Patriots offense may be doing. The Browns have three ball carriers with runs of 15 yards or longer, including an 85-yard touchdown for Crowell. Cleveland has five guys with a reception of 25 yards or longer. The Patriots need to keep those weapons holstered and force Cleveland to earn everything its gets bit-by-bit offensively.
Prediction - The Browns are a scrappy, try-hard team that has scored at least 20 points in three straight and took the Dolphins to overtime. They have a productive running game and some playmaking athletes on offense. But they haven't shown the ability to win games and their defense simply isn't very good, having allowed 25 points or more each week. That unit faces the challenge that is a returning Brady. I don't like their chances, regardless of any rust that TB12 may have. New England is too talented on offense and Brady too talented himself for it to take long for the unit to start clicking. While expecting huge, blowout numbers maybe be a bit premature, expecting a controlled victory is not. New England should be able to move the ball consistently through the air. Gronkowski has to break out of his funk at some point, so why not this week to help ease Brady back into things? It says here that Brady will throw for 300 yards and three scores, Gronkowski will be one of them and the Patriots roll to a 31-9 victory. The defense will continue to avoid big plays and get a couple turnovers against the young quarterback. Assuming the Patriots don't make huge mistakes in the kicking game or lose the battle of turnovers in dramatic fashion, Brady should return with a road win to build on moving forward as the schedule road gets a bit bumpier.
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