by Scott Benson
The old dog had some old tricks for the Patriots yesterday.
Former Pats defensive chief Romeo Crennel and the Cleveland Browns managed to do what no one had done yet – extricate Randy Moss from the center of an explosive New England offense – but in the end, they couldn’t cover everybody, or cover for their own mistakes.
The Patriots defense forced four Cleveland turnovers and Tom Brady teamed with Ben Watson and Sammy Morris to get by the Browns, 34-17, for a win that was not nearly as comfortable as the final score would indicate.
For the first time this season, the Patriots offense stumbled – converting just 2 of 12 third downs and scoring just 1 touchdown in 4 red zone tries on a frustrating afternoon – as Crennel and the Browns blanketed Moss (just 3 catches) and forced Brady to look elsewhere for help.
Ultimately, that help was there for the deep Patriots, as Watson gathered in 100 yards and two scores and Morris piled up his second straight 100 yard game in relief of Laurence Maroney, allowing Brady to overcome the partial loss of power and throw for at least three scores for the fifth consecutive week.
The New England defense intercepted Derek Anderson three times on deflected first half passes and Randall Gay stripped Kellen Winslow and returned the fumble for a touchdown to mask a pedestrian afternoon in which Anderson and the Browns totaled 22 first downs and 350 yards of net offense on the formerly top-rated Patriots D.
The turnovers kept the Pats comfortably in front through the first half, but Anderson came back to lead the Browns to 17 points over the final 30 minutes and force the Patriots to play for keeps well into the late afternoon.
It might have been worse, had Anderson not bounced an end zone pass off Asante Samuel into the arms of Junior Seau after driving the Browns 60 yards on their first possession, which would have given them an early lead in the Pats’ own park. Instead, the ill-advised pass (Samuel was the only one open on the play, though he muffed it straight in the air) kicked off a series of events that left the Browns trailing by 20 at the half.
The Pats caught more than one break on that drive: after an impressive 11 yard run on the first play, ace runner Jamal Lewis limped off with an ankle injury, never to return.
After the Patriots could do nothing with the turnover, Anderson took over and again went back to pass, this time to the right flat. There waited the Ali-like wingspan of Adalius Thomas, and this time it was Samuel on the other end of the tipped ball near the Cleveland 30.
Brady, who on the opening possession had been held to a field goal after a long drive was stunted in the red zone, immediately went to the air himself. There, safely behind impregnable protection (ouch – no pun intended), he scanned a series of options before deciding on Donte Stallworth, who gathered it in at the Browns 25 and outweaved everyone to the end zone, and a 10-0 lead.
Stallworth had his second straight strong game – he’s quickly becoming the Pat most likely to do something interesting after the catch. He slithers more than he runs. He was surrounded by Browns on the touchdown, but was always just out of their reach. With Moss limited to two first-half catches (both on the opening drive), Stallworth emerged to retain the Pats’ outside game.
Everything started, as it should, with the superlative play of the New England offensive line. It’s like future politician Brady has already been assigned a Secret Service detail. He’s getting all the time on the rope line he needs, and the backs continue to find creases in which they can square up and plow ahead.
Morris is nothing if not the living definition of solid, a physical back that almost always is able to lean forward for three and four yards. With the official designation of Maroney as “Injury Prone” now but a formality, Morris is increasingly becoming an indispensible player for the Patriots.
As is Russ Hochstein, who moved to center for the ailing Dan Koppen after filling in for the previously-ailing – and now returning – Stephen Neal at right guard. The Patriots have suffered two injuries to the core of their line and haven’t skipped a beat, thanks to the long-time standby who’s often as effective as any starter.
The two turnovers slowed the Browns, who kept it close to the vest for a bit, content to distract the Pats with Scott Player’s ridiculous moustache. If you are going to make a facemask choice like that, why add the friggin’ handlebar moustache? A blond handlebar moustache? Player, please. I think he even spooked Brady, who again drove New England inside Cleveland’s 10 only to be turned aside with only another field goal. Despite two long drives and two turnovers by their opponent, the Patriots still led by less than two touchdowns.
Emboldened by their (relatively) good fortune, Cleveland began to drive again, and three first downs brought them to midfield. But at the two minute warning, Mike Vrabel’s bull rush from Anderson’s right put him on the quarterback’s hip as he tried to throw. The ball was free in the air again, and again it was a Patriot – Seau, for the second time – that was waiting.
Seau just about gave everybody a heart attack by stopping in the middle of his return – perfectly positioned in the center of the field, where everybody could see – to wave the ball wildly in the air as angry Browns approached. He was mercifully tackled before he could pitch the ball to Bill Belichick or something equally as puzzling as his mid-return brainfart.
The interception gave Brady the ball at the Browns 25, and Watson stepped forward for the first of his two touchdown catches, an easy flip and run to the left side flag from the Cleveland 7. Watson later beat single coverage to race down the right hash and pull in a perfectly thrown Brady pass for a 25 yard, fourth quarter score, his fifth of the season. His development into a reliable contributor this year has been a quiet success story for the highly-touted Pats.
With a 20-0 lead to start the third quarter, the biggest concern for New England was how quickly the game clock could tick off the final 30 minutes. It felt that way anyway, as the offense stalled for its first scoreless third quarter of the season and the defense striggled to get off the field. Cleveland seemed to hold the ball for most of the period, as the Patriots offense could only muster two first downs. Here Moss’s absence was most deeply felt, as for the first time his year, his connection with Brady seemed ill-timed. Brady’s forced attempts flew wildly past a blanketed Moss again and again, leaving all due credit to Crennel and his staff, who offered the league’s first answer to the dynamic duo. Did the three-time champion coordinator start a book on Moss yesterday by showing the rest of the league how to dim New England’s brightest light? We’ll find out.
Just as we’ll find out about the Patriots defense, who started the day at the top of the league’s statistical rankings but ended it by getting backpedaled by Anderson, who directed two fourth quarter touchdown drives to keep the game close. Backup tailback Jason Wright (100 total yards of offense) proved problematic for New England, as did Braylon Edwards (100 receiving), Tim Carter (a 21 yard TD pass from Anderson) and Kellen Winslow (a 15 yard score to complete a bang-bang two-play drive). The Patriots couldn’t cover anybody and couldn’t get off the field, despite a season-best effort from Tedy Bruschi (two sacks on wide open blitzes).
That left the Pats with a ten point lead and six minutes to play, and as has been their custom, the offense launched a clock killing ball control drive behind Morris and Kyle ‘The Kloser’ Eckel, who provided late game relief for the second straight week. But again, Cleveland closed the Pats down inside the red zone, and Belichick eschewed a field goal for a failed 4th down pass to Kyle Brady, which had no chance of succeeding from the snap. This confused me almost as much as Seau’s premature celebration; why not take the sure three and a thirteen point lead, forcing Cleveland to score two touchdowns in one minute to win, rather than just a touchdown and a field goal to tie?
Maybe it was because it left the Browns backed up to their own goal line, and when Winslow was stripped by Gay (who finished with a neat cross-country return for TD), it didn’t end up mattering. The Pats left the field with another three-score margin of victory, though they had to know just how slim that margin really was.