Tom Brady returned, the offense followed suit and the Patriots got back in the win column with a thoroughly dominant 33-13 victory over the hapless Cleveland Browns.
Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots fourth victory of the season.
The new normal – Brady was back and all was right with the Patriots offense. After getting shutout a week ago against Buffalo the Patriots had no trouble moving the ball and scoring points with Brady back at the controls. New England racked up 501 yards of offense and 33 points, and most of that production came off the right arm of Brady. He was sharp throughout, completing 28 of 40 passes for 406 yards – the eighth 400-yard game of his career – and three touchdowns and a passer rating of 127.7. He was able to push the ball downfield at times and used a couple of his new targets effectively. Martellus Bennett had three touchdowns while Chris Hogan chipped in with four catches for 114 yards including a 63-yard bomb. After missing the first four games due to his suspension, Brady was back in midseason form.
Tight looks – Much has been made about the Patriots preference to use multiple tight ends and that was on display in full force in Cleveland. Bill Belichick has long favored the offense out of those looks because it doesn't allow the personnel group to dictate to the defense whether it's a run or pass. Using both Rob Gronkowski and Bennett together allows Josh McDanielsto switch things up based on the looks he sees from the defense. On Sunday both tight ends were dominant at times as Bennett caught ix passes for 67 yards and three touchdowns while Gronkowski enjoyed his best day of the season with five grabs for 109 yards including a scintillating 37-yard catch-and-run down to the 1. Watching those two have their way with the overmatched Browns brought back memories of Gronk and Aaron Hernandez, although Bennett is much more physical than Hernandez and is capable of bring even more to the offense.
More heavy D – Last week the Patriots used a heavy defensive front with Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and Vincent Valentine all on the field together. That was an effort to keep LeSean McCoy and the Bills running game under wraps. This week with Valentine out with a back injury it was rookie Woodrow Hamilton joining Brown and Branch as the Patriots focus was clearly on Isaiah Crowell. That strategy was effective as the big boys dominated, limiting Crowell seven carries for a grand total of 9 yards in the first half. Cleveland wants to run the football and that was even more important after rookie quarterback Cody Kessler was knocked out of the game, but the Patriots big front made sure the Browns weren't able to get things going on the ground. For the game the Browns finished with 27 yards on 22 carries, which translates to a 1.2-yard average.
Roberts makes an impact – Rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts saw plenty of action and performed well in his first extended action on defense. Roberts finished with seven tackles including one for a loss. He also was competitive in coverage throughout, particularly in underneath zones around the backs and tight ends. Roberts has been inactive for most games thus far but he made the most of it against Cleveland.
Safety measures –The Browns offense actually got off to a reasonably good start and trailed just 14-7 late in the first quarter when Don't'a Hightower all but ended things for the home team. Hightower came free on a blitz up the gut and caught Kessler by surprise. The pressure caused Kessler to unload a screen before he wanted to and the pass traveled backward into the end zone and resulted in a safety. That play effectively the game as the Patriots took a 16-7 lead and immediately made it 23-7 by driving for another touchdown.
Concerning developments – Things haven't exactly gotten off to a great start for rookie Cyrus Jones. Last week Jones struggled in his decision-making on kickoff returns and despite Bill Belichick's chastising of the media for assigning blame on plays where fault is unknown, the coach opted to remove him from those duties as well as punt returns in Cleveland. Things only got worse for the rookie from there. Jones opened the game as the third cornerback with Justin Coleman inactive but he quickly lost some playing time – and then a lost a lot of time. Rookie Jonathan Jones came into the game at times with Cyrus Jones and at times in place of him. He was beaten badly by Andrew Hawkins for a touchdown when the Browns wideout torched him in the slot. Things got worse between Cyrus Jones and Hawkins when the two were involved in a scuffle in the third quarter and the rookie was ejected for throwing punches. Overall it's been a rocky first impression.
QB quandary – Belichick made an interesting comment while appearing on 98.5 The Sports Hub's pregame show. Asked about the decisions to place Jacoby Brissett on injured reserve earlier in the week, Belichick stated, "the sooner we did it the sooner we can get him back." That would seem to indicate Belichick has plans to bring the rookie back after the requisite eight-week period. If that's the case, it could present an interesting situation with Jimmy Garoppolo. While Belichick was likely thinking in terms of injuries down the road, the remark made me wonder if the coach would entertain the idea of dealing Garoppolo prior to the deadline. Obviously that would be unlikely since it would leave the team with just Tom Brady at quarterback, but considering the fact that New England played two games with just one healthy quarterback active the possibility cannot be ignored.
Tackling the job – The Patriots were without starting right tackle Marcus Cannon, who was forced to sit out with a calf injury. Cameron Fleming replaced him and things up front seemed to go reasonably well. Dante Scarnecchia's troops didn't appear to miss many assignments and Brady was able to survey the field before finding his receivers. The Browns had some pretty good pressure early in the game and Brady took some hits but he was generally able to complete the passes anyway and that seemed to back off the pass rush. The lone blip on the radar was the lack of a running game as the offensive line failed to open holes for LeGarrette Blount. That resulted in a terrible day of production on the ground as Blount finished with just 37 yards on 18 carries.
Speaking of which … -- Blount was completely held in check and that was especially evident on the goal line. Leading 23-7 and looking for more, the Patriots had the ball inside the 5 and tried to power the ball into the end zone. On third-and-goal from the inside the 1, Blount was stopped for no gain up the middle. On fourth down the Patriots tried to send Blount off left tackle behind Nate Solder. The play never had a chance as Blount was caught in the backfield for a loss. The whole series of plays, which included a 5-yard run by D.J. Foster on second down, appeared to be a situation where Belichick was looking to make a statement by running it in with the game already well in hand. But the inability to do so was still fairly troubling.
Extra points –The Patriots improved to 41-6 in games following a loss. … Gronkowski and Hogan each went over the 100-yard mark, the first time since 2014 the team has had a pair of 100-yard receivers. … Belichick moved past Curly Lambeau into fourth place all-time with his 227th career regular-season win. It was also his 250th win including the postseason. … It was the 195th career win for Brady, inching him closer to Brett Favre (199) and Peyton Manning (200) for the most in history. … Malcom Brown picked up a pair of sacks, marking the first time he's recorded more than one in a game. … The offense used an unbalanced line with Joe Thuney moving to the right side outside of Fleming in the first half. The play resulted in a 2-yard gain by Blount.