New England is 9-3 and on the verge of wrapping up another AFC East crown. With a win and a Miami Dolphins loss, the division would belong to the Patriots once again. Also, a win and a Baltimore Ravens defeat would lock up at minimum a wild-card berth. Should either of these scenarios happen, it would be the 10th trip to the postseason in the last 11 years for New England.
Cleveland, on the other hand, is watching its once promising season crash and burn. The Browns began the season 0-2 and looked dead after trading former No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson. However, the team rallied to 4-5 before completely falling apart, losing three straight and giving the keys back to Brandon Weeden after Jason Campbell sustained an injury two weeks ago.
Meet the Browns
Cleveland has talent on its roster, just no quarterback to guide it. The Browns have had three different starting quarterbacks this season in Brian Hoyer, Weeden and Campbell. Hoyer looked very promising after two starts but tore his ACL in his third, ending his season.
The good news for Browns fans is the legitimate emergence of Josh Gordon. The speedy wide receiver from Baylor is truly one of the best in the game, and is coming off consecutive 200-yard receiving games, a feat never previously accomplished. Gordon already has 64 receptions, 1,249 yards and seven touchdowns.
Defensively, Cleveland has plenty of playmakers. The Browns rank fifth in the league against both the pass and run, due in large part to shutdown cornerback Joe Haden and a solid pass-rush which has totaled 33 sacks. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson is also having another excellent season, amassing 103 tackles to lead the team.
Meet the Patriots
New England struggled early in the season to find itself on offense with so many new pieces, but things have fallen into place. Tom Brady now has tight end Rob Gronkowski back and a healthy Danny Amendola, making his job infinitely easier. Brady has thrown for 3,267 yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Statistically Brady is having a down year, but considering what he has been working with it could be much worse.
The Patriots have had a solid rushing attack despite Stevan Ridley treating the ball like a hand grenade. Ridley leads the team with 576 rushing yards but also has three fumbles, which led him to be made inactive last week. LeGarrette Blount has stepped up, gaining 4.4 yards per carry as a bowling ball between the tackles.
New England's defense has been hurt by the losses of nose tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, but the unit has still been respectable. Second-year defensive end Chandler Jones has become a force with 10.5 sacks while Rob Ninkovich and Chris Jones have each contributed with five. Aqib Talib has been the rock of the secondary, covering the opposition's best receiver each week. He leads the team with four interceptions.
Local take: Cleveland
Zach J. Miller of Dawgs By Nature writes about the quarterback nightmare in Cleveland:
Weeden looked semi-competent to start the game, then it all went to hell. Weeden was responsible for three straight turnovers in a 3 minute stretch late in the first half. That lead to 13 straight points for the Jags. Weeden also is said to have suffered a concussion and his status for Sunday is in question. If Weeden can't go, and Jason Campbell still on the mend from a concussion, it appears as though it may be the Alex Tanney Show. The QB carousel in Cleveland just keeps on spinning.
Local take: New England
Over at Pats Pulpit, Richard Hill wonders how the playoffs will shake out in the AFC:
With the Chiefs the forever underdog and the Broncos somehow straddling the heel/face fence, the Patriots are going to have to find their role in the post-season story. Are they going to be another stepping stone on the Broncos crash course for Peyton's sunset? Or are they going to play spoiler and bring Peyton back for one more season? Will they fall victim to the Chiefs as they play with nothing to lose? Or will the Patriots kick down the door like they did against the Broncos in 2011?
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The Patriots need this game if they want any hope of being the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Conversely, Cleveland is playing out the string and does not even know who its quarterback is going to be in this contest. New England is simply a much better team at home with more motivation. Should the Browns pull this one out, it would qualify as the biggest upset of the season.
Pick: New England 27, Cleveland 10
New England opened as a 10-point favorite according to OddsShark.com.
Cleveland plays host to the Chicago Bears while New England visits Miami.