It could be another big week for quarterback Tom Brady. (AP)
Here’s everything you need to know about Sunday’s Browns-Patriots game:
Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon:
1. Quarterback Tom Brady against Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton: The last time Brady and the Patriots faced a Ray Horton defense, it was last September when the Cardinals came into Foxboro and shocked New England. In the wake of that game, Horton took a minor victory lap, telling people that he was able to detect a “tell” in the Patriots defense that allowed Arizona to pull off the upset. Regardless of the fact that the tell turned out to be nonsense, the idea an opposing defensive coordinator not only got the better of him but spent some time after the game letting everyone know he did it had to rankle Brady just a bit. The quarterback has a terrific memory when it comes to things like that, and is always on the lookout for some slight, either real or perceived. There’s no denying the fact that Horton has built an impressive defense this year — the Browns are in the top 5 in total defense, as well as top 5 against the pass and the rush. But Horton’s comments from a year ago are just the sort of thing that the quarterback will keep in mind when it comes to this contest. For what it’s worth, it appears that Horton is going to get Brady at the peak of his powers this season: after a rough start where he completed 56.6 percent of his passes through the first five games (in two of those games threw for less than 200 yards), the quarterback has put together an impressive four-game sequence that has removed all doubt about where he stands physically heading into the stretch run. Over the last four games, he’s 115-for-164 (70 percent) for 1,443 yards, with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. Game on.
2. The Patriots defense against quarterback Jason Campbell: It sounds like the decision was made sometime late Thursday or early Friday to go with Campbell over Brandon Weeden (or “Trick Shot” Tanney or Caleb Hanie) Sunday against the Patriots. It remains to be seen how he’ll do on a short week of work, but at least Campbell does have some familiarity when it comes to going up against a Bill Belichick-coached defense. He’s started against the Patriots twice in his career — once in 2007 with the Redskins and a second time in 2011 with the Raiders. In his first start, Campbell (then in his second season in the league) was completely steamrolled by the Patriots, who crushed the Redskins 52-7, one of the biggest blowouts of the year. (In that game, he was 21-for-36 for 197 yards with one touchdown and one interception.) The second time around, he was actually pretty good, going 25-for-39 for 344 yards with one touchdown and two picks in a 31-19 loss to New England. He hasn’t necessarily re-invented the position, but he appears to give the Browns the best chance to win on Sunday. In four starts this season, Campbell has gone 87-for-153 (57 percent) for 933 yards, with six touchdowns and three picks. He doesn’t have the sort of wheels that he used to (he had three straight years where he rushed for at least 200 yards), but he is mobile and can keep plays alive with his feet if needed.
3. Cornerback Aqib Talib against wide receiver Josh Gordon: This is going to be the matchup that determines how successful the Browns are going to be. Gordon is a phenomenal young talent who has provided the bulk of the offense for Cleveland through the first 12 games of the year. He’s had at least 125 receiving yards in four of Cleveland’s last five games, and became the first player in NFL history with back-to-back 200-yard receiving games last week, thanks to his 14-catch, 237-yard performance in Week 12 against the Steelers. The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder is a threat on multiple levels — he’s shown an ability to catch passes short and turn them into long gains (he’s third in the league in yards after the catch with 520) and he has the necessary straight-line speed to beat his man deep (his total yardage is second among wide receivers to Calvin Johnson). The long, lean Gordon should be a good matchup for Talib, who has done some of his best work against bigger, more physical receivers. Should be a fun matchup come Sunday.
4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’ fans need to know: tight end Jordan Cameron. The USC product has been up-and-down over the course of the season — some of that is due to the instability the Browns have dealt with at quarterback, and it appears that Cameron and Campbell have struggled to get on the same page at times. But overall, he’s had an excellent season, with 63 catches for 704 yards and six touchdowns. The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder is relatively well regarded as both a blocker and pass catcher, and when the Cleveland offense has been clicking, he’s been a good No. 2 option in the passing game behind Gordon. If Steve Gregory is healthy enough to go this week — he’s been dogged by a finger injury over the last few games — he should play a sizable role in trying to slow down Cameron. In addition, expect defensive help to come from linebackers Dane Fletcher and Dont’a Hightower.
5. By the numbers: Over the last four games, the Patriots have been outscored over the first two quarters by a 61-34 margin. In that same stretch, they’ve outscored opponents in the third quarter by a 62-28 count. (One more: in an odd coincidence, the Browns have two rushing touchdowns over the first 12 games of the year. Last week’s opponent — the Texans — had two rushing touchdowns on the season entering their game against New England. In that contest, Houston rushed for 121 yards and three touchdowns in the 34-31 loss to the Patriots.)
6. Quote of note: “I’m pretty sure he’ll make some plays, but I’m definitely going to make more plays.” — Cleveland wide receiver Josh Gordon on his impending matchup with Aqib Talib.
7. Patriots fans should be worried about….. Gordon is an obvious choice — and he’s a transformative gamebreaker who has the power to wreck a team’s pass defense — but the Patriots’ struggles when it comes to stopping the run make us lean more toward the Cleveland running game. If the Browns can somehow get something started on the ground, that could cause trouble on Sunday. Cleveland relies heavily on old warhorse Willis McGahee as its feature back, and the University of Miami product (and former college teammate of Vince Wilfork) has 344 yards on 124 carries to this point in the season. Chris Ogbonnaya is also a fairly steady presence for them (38 carries, 216 yards), but is more of a third-down option than anything else. If the Browns can somehow find a way to get some production on the ground, mixed in with steady contributions from Gordon and Cameron, then Cleveland could really have something. At the same time, it’s one thing to say it — it’s another thing to put that plan into motion.
8. Browns fans should be worried about…. Brady being Brady. As previously noted, the quarterback seems to have regained his groove, connecting at a clip just over 70 percent over the course of the last four games. Two things to look for when it comes to how Brady is going to attack the Browns on Sunday: One, the Browns’ pass defense has been very good at defending the deep ball. They have only yielded two pass plays of 40 yards or more, tied with the Seahawks for the best total in the league. (They’re also tied for third in the league when it comes to fewest pass plays of 20 yards or more with 28.) Don’t expect him to try and drop back and chuck it deep. And two, it’s clear that if you put a stopwatch on Brady for the last three games, there’s been a renewed emphasis on getting the ball out as fast as possible. That’s one of the reasons why the sack numbers have dropped over the last three weeks (six sacks in that stretch), and one of the reasons the offense appears to be clicking. Cleveland is slightly better than average when it comes to getting after the quarterback — it has 33 sacks, tied for 13th, with Barkevious Mingo (4 sacks), Desmond Bryant (3.5 sacks, but he’s now out for the year) and Jabaal Sheard (3.5 sacks) all leading the way. If Brady can continue to get the ball out quickly and receivers like Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen can continue to be dependable as options in the passing game, then Brady should have some opportunities against the Browns.
9. One more thing: Looking between the lines at the numbers put forward by the Cleveland defense to this point in the season, it’s clear there’s talent there. As previously mentioned, the Browns are in the top 5 in total defense, as well when it comes to stopping the run and the pass. The one number that does jump off the page if you’re a Patriots fan is that their points per game total is abnormally high when stacked against the rest of their defensive stats. Cleveland allows 24.8 points per game, tied for 19th in the league. That suggests that while the Browns defense is capable of getting stops, the Cleveland offense (and special teams) hasn’t done a great job of playing complimentary football — that is to say, putting them in position to succeed. (The Browns have 23 giveaways, fourth in the NFL.) It doesn’t matter how good a defense you are, you can’t consistently succeed if you’re being asked to defend on a short field.