The Patriots’ defense has been otherworldly in 2019. The Browns have been, despite their most talented roster in decades, the Browns. When you put those two together in a driving Foxborough rainstorm, you’ve got the recipe for football schadenfreude magic.
New England returned Cleveland to its embarrassing football roots with a dominant display in Week 8. Three of the Browns’ first four drives Sunday ended in turnovers, effectively dashing out the club’s upset hopes before halftime cropped up on the horizon. The Patriots’ offense averaged a meager 4.8 yards per play in the first quarter and converted just two of six third-down opportunities — and still led 17-0 after 15 minutes.
Cleveland began its upset bid by becoming only the seventh team in NFL history to turn the ball over on three straight plays — all of which happened in their first seven plays from scrimmage. By the time its offense began to play up to the standard a better-than-expected defense had set, it was too late. The Browns spent the final three quarters of Week 8 trying to climb their way out of a hole of their own making.
And any time they caught a glimpse of daylight, the Pats were ready to kick a little more dirt on them.
Each of the Browns’ first three turnovers was more embarrassing than the last
An opening drive three-and-out would somehow become Cleveland’s high-water mark in the first quarter. The Patriots took an early 3-0 lead after their second possession of the game stalled out at the goal line, leaving the Browns in decent shape to become the first team in 2019 to record a lead over New England.
Instead, Cleveland conspired against itself, and Dont’a Hightower cleaned up the mess.
Browns guard Joel Bitonio knocked the ball from Nick Chubb’s hands, and Hightower was there to pick it up and return it 26 yards for a touchdown. New England 10, Cleveland 0.
The Browns appeared unfazed by this development — after all, they’d turned the ball over 14 times in their first six games. They went right back to Chubb, who rewarded their faith by taking his team’s very next play 44 yards down the field.
And then fumbling.
While that snuffed out a potential scoring drive, the Pats were unable to turn it into points. Cleveland got the ball back trailing by 10 but still in position to put the home team on notice with a long drive that would prove they couldn’t be disheartened by a handful of bad breaks.
Baker Mayfield had different plans. He used his his first snap of the ensuing drive to plant his flag with this nomination for “2019’s dumbest turnover.”
oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god pic.twitter.com/yX7IXSYTdy— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) October 27, 2019
New England didn’t let this opportunity go to waste, capping an 11-yard drive with a touchdown pass to Julian Edelman. Through one quarter, the Browns had held Tom Brady to just one completion of more than 10 yards and had a tailback who was on pace for 288 rushing yards at a 14.4 yards-per-carry clip.
And they faced a three-possession deficit.
This wasn’t just the Browns being the Browns. It was the Patriots’ defense keeping up standards
Through seven weeks, the Patriots had allowed 48 total points. They’d only given up three touchdowns to opposing offenses. Hightower’s fumble return gave them six special teams or defensive return TDs on the season. They’d come up with 18 interceptions and given up just one passing touchdown.
One week after making Sam Darnold see ghosts, the Patriots unleashed their horde of boogeymen on a Browns offense that seemed wholly unprepared despite having an entire bye week to plan for their trip to Massachusetts. New England killed the Jets by bringing legions of blitzers and trusting their cornerbacks to cover the slack in press coverage. They knew they couldn’t do the same regularly against the dynamite wideout duo of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry — but they didn’t need to in the first quarter.
The Pats ran fewer blitzes and opted to back their secondary off the line in order to take away the deep ball. That created some running room and put the onus on a front seven that did enough work to score a pair of touchdowns thanks to the Browns absolutely Browns-ian combination of bad luck and worse execution.
Chubb was able to find a soft zone in the middle of that defense en route to 92 first-half rushing yards. As long as he could break through the line of scrimmage, he had the space to deke late-to-the-ball defensive backs. This was great for Cleveland on running plays, but it also kept Mayfield from finding any kind of rhythm in the pocket or any space for his receivers downfield.
Beckham and Landry finished their first 30 minutes with 46 combined receiving yards. And as good as that running game was — Chubb finished his day with 131 yards on 20 carries — a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit made his skill on the ground obsolete. The Browns’ offensive line gassed out and the Patriots used a no-frills four-man pass rush to grind Mayfield into dust. They sacked him five times and hit him seven more.
this *probably* would have been a roughing the passer/body weight penalty if it happened in the first four weeks of 2018 pic.twitter.com/IC2OPdGu1S— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) October 27, 2019
Chubb had more rushing yards than anyone else the Patriots have faced in 2019. He had more rushing yards than five of New England’s first seven opponents did as a team. That’s a weakness others will be eager to exploit late in the season — the Cowboys and Ravens, each with powerful and efficient running games, immediately come to mind.
But Bill Belichick’s focus Sunday was to take away Mayfield’s passing game and allow a player who leads the league in interceptions to make poor decisions. It worked; Beckham and Landry caught less than 59 percent of their targets, and the Browns’ most successful passing play went to backup tight end Demetrius Harris, who scored their only touchdown.
Other mistakes loomed. Denzel Ward dropped an interception in the end zone that led to a Patriots field goal seconds later — though he’d make up for it by blocking a Mike Nugent FG attempt later in the game. The Browns were tagged with 13 penalties for 85 yards. They had a vital comeback drive, down two touchdowns as the clock ticked over to the fourth quarter, derailed by three flags.
Two different 25+ yard gains on third-and-short were wiped out by offensive pass interference calls. Kitchens lost two challenges that had little chance of success — including one on an aforementioned OPI penalty — that cost him valuable timeouts and left him without the opportunity to overturn a bad call through much of the fourth quarter.
Cleveland needed to be nearly perfect to beat the Patriots on their home turf. Instead, the Browns looked very much like a team en route to its 12th straight losing season.
That’s bad, or in head coach Freddie Kitchens’ own words:
"Are you shitting me, guys?" - Freddie Kitchen pic.twitter.com/gxZUPI9jdY— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) October 27, 2019
The Browns probably weren’t going to come into Foxborough — a place where the Patriots are 23-4 since 2016 and win. But they definitely weren’t going to beat an undefeated team on the road where they effectively spotted them two touchdowns. New England improved to 8-0 in a 27-13 rout on a day when Brady wasn’t especially crisp and the running game churned out just 2.9 yards per carry.
And that’s totally OK when you’ve got the league’s best defense to bail you out.