As the old saying goes, it's better to be lucky than good. The Patriots were enough of both on Sunday to grind their way to a 27-16 victory over the Cleveland Browns in a win that firmly places New England in prime position for the postseason.
There was nothing fluky about the Patriots performance. They got steady play from the defense, which caused four turnovers, enough offense from Tom Brady & Co. and several huge plays on special teams to earn this win. Troy Brown made the biggest with an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown to give the Patriots a lead they wouldn't relinquish late in the second quarter.
But there also were some fortuitous bounces sprinkled in, and the Patriots took full advantage. One came midway through the fourth quarter with the Patriots clinging to a sketchy 20-16 lead. Cleveland took over at its own 14 and quickly moved out to the 31 on a 17-yard pass from Tim Couch to Jamel White.
On the next play, Couch hit Dennis Northcutt over the middle but the pass bounced off his chest and into the arms of defensive end Anthony Pleasant, who corralled his second interception of the season. As if that break wasn't enough, Pleasant then lost the ball on his return, but cornerback Otis Smith was there to recover and the Patriots staved off one Browns rally.
When the Patriots couldn't put the game away off that turnover by failing to move an inch from the Cleveland 35, Head Coach Bill Belichick opted to send Adam Vinatieri out for a 53-yard field goal attempt. Vinatieri made a 54-yarder in the first quarter, but missed consecutive kicks from 39 and 48 yards later in the game.
But Belichick had a trick up his sleeve and had the snap go directly to his kicker, who placed a perfect pooch punt inside the Browns 10. As the ball bounded near the Cleveland goal line, tight end Jermaine Wiggins rumbled downfield and barely kept it out of the end zone while somehow keeping his feet in the field of play. Long snapper Lonie Paxton then downed the ball at the 1.
Again, excellent plays by the Patriots with a little luck sprinkled in.
"That was a big play," Belichick said. "That's something we've worked on every week since training camp. It's the last thing we do every Friday in practice. We do that very well every week. Maybe not at the 1, but pretty close. It was really well executed by Adam, and Jermaine did a good job of keeping his feet in the field of play."
The Browns couldn't register a first down to get away from the shadow of their goal posts and Brown came through again with a 20-yard punt return that put the ball at the Cleveland 36. With another chance to put the pesky Browns away, the Patriots decided to ride the legs of Antowain Smith. He carried on 5-of-6 plays and finished Cleveland with a 5-yard touchdown run with 2:43 remaining that allowed the Patriots to breathe easy with a 27-16 lead.
"That's what you have to do when you're a good football team," Smith said. "You have to be able to run the ball late when you're trying to hold a lead in this league. It wasn't pretty and it wasn't as effective as we would like it to be but when it really counted we got it done."
The Patriots ground game wasn't very effective for most of the game, but Smith came alive late when he needed to. He finished the game with 76 yards on 21 carries but more importantly picked up two touchdowns. Those gave him 10 rushing scores on the season, marking the first time a Patriots back has had that many since Curtis Martin in 1996.
While the offense struggled looking for the knockout blow, the defense did its best impression of the rope-a-dope. Cleveland's offense, which entered the game ranked dead last in the NFL, moved the ball efficiently at times, especially during a marathon march in the first quarter. The Browns moved 59 yards in 16 plays and held the ball for 8:20, but the Patriots got tough near their end zone.
After a pair of incomplete passes, Couch appeared to toss a touchdown pass to Northcutt near the back line of the end zone. The play was ruled a touchdown on the field, but lady luck was once again on the Patriots side and the call was reversed after Belichick requested it be reviewed.
The television angles made it difficult to see if Northcutt held onto the ball, and generally in those cases the call on the field stands. But referee Walt Coleman saw enough to overturn the call and the Browns settled for a Phil Dawson field goal that tied the game, 3-3.
On the next play, Cleveland took its only lead of the game. On first down, Brady looked for David Patten on a quick slant but the Browns Corey Fuller stepped in front, intercepted the pass and raced 49 yards for a touchdown.
Brady didn't dwell on the mistake and came back to lead an 11-play touchdown drive that tied the game at 10. Smith scored his first touchdown with a 1-yard run that followed his key 2-yard gain on fourth-and-one from the Cleveland 3.
"Those are the type of plays we need," safety Lawyer Milloy said. "When you need a stop, someone has to get it. When we need a yard, someone has to get it. Antowain got that one for us and we ended up with a touchdown. Winning teams make those plays."
Brown made the first of several huge plays after the Patriots defense forced a Chris Gardocki punt. He fielded the kick at his own 15 and started up the middle. He darted to his left and raced untouched down the field. Milloy made a key block on Dwayne Rudd and rookie Richard Seymour picked up Gardocki to clear the final hurdle for Brown.
"I really hadn't gotten very far down field before I saw Troy running my way," Seymour said. "I turned around and saw [Gardocki] standing there and I cleaned him out pretty good. Troy did the rest from there."
It was Brown's second punt return for a touchdown in the last two years. He opened the season with a 66-yarder against Tampa Bay in 2000 but hadn't really come close to breaking one all the way this season. Belichick said he and special teams coach Brad Seely spoke during the week and felt they had a chance to make a play in the punt return game and worked on it in full pads during practice on Thursday instead of the usual Friday. After Brown made his coaches look like prophets, he handed the ball to Belichick on the sideline.
"I think there's something about the rush of [returning punts] that I like," Brown said. "To have 10 or 11 guys running down the field trying to cream you ... maybe that's the rush."
The New England Patriots take on the Cleveland Browns at Foxboro Stadium on Sunday, December 9, 2001.
Brown continues to make the bulk of the plays for the Patriots. He led the team with seven catches for 89 yards and remains Brady's go-to guy despite Terry Glenn's return. Glenn did make an impact on the offense with four catches for 67 yards and opened things up underneath for Brown and Patten.
Cleveland appeared poised to get some points back on its next possession but Couch's pass intended for Kevin Johnson was intercepted by Terrell Buckley at the Patriots 5. Making matters worse for the Browns, Brady then led the hurry-up offense into field-goal range and Vinatieri ended the first half with a 38-yarder to up the lead to 20-10 at the break.
Brady's second interception of the game set up another Browns field goal and got Cleveland within a touchdown early in the third. Former Patriot Greg Spires had a hold of Brady's legs on the play and the youngster tried to throw the ball away as he was going down, but Earl Little leaped and picked it off.
"It was just a bad play," Brady said. "Sometimes taking a sack isn't all that bad, especially on third-and-long. You hope those things don't happen again. Sometimes you gamble and it doesn't work out how you planned it."
Brady wasn't as sharp as he has been in some games, completing 19-of-28 (67.8 percent) for 218 yards with the two interceptions. He failed to throw a touchdown pass for the second straight game and also saw his streak of four consecutive games completing 70 or more percent of his passes narrowly come to an end.
The Browns fashioned a fourth-quarter drive that threatened to tie the game, but once again the Patriots defense got tough when it needed to. With a first-and-goal at the Patriots 4, Couch failed to get the ball in for the tying score and Dawson kicked his third field goal of the game with 12:39 remaining.
Then the Patriots took advantage of their bounces and made enough plays down the stretch to hold on for the win. "Everyone is making that little extra effort," Belichick said. "That's why we're winning. Every game we win makes the next one a little bit bigger."
The next one is at Buffalo, and the Patriots aren't expecting a cakewalk. The 2-10 Bills showed they aren't quitting by rallying from a 24-6 deficit to post a 25-24 win over Carolina last week, and the Patriots know they can't afford to slip up on the road at this point.
"We've come too far to get caught sleeping," Milloy said. "We're starting to gain some momentum in here and that's the way it was the year we went to the Super Bowl. That was my rookie year (1996) but we had the same kind of approach that we do now."
2001: A Super Bowl Sound Odyssey
An aural history of the 2001 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The six-part podcast features interviews with over 20 players, coaches, media members and others who were there to witness this historic season, mixed with the iconic sounds that detailed every dramatic twist and turn of an unforgettable season. Every memorable moment from the 2001 Patriots season is revisited with new-found perspective 20 years later. It's a fresh and thorough look back at the team that started a football dynasty.
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