FOXBORO, Mass. — Some said there was an asterisk on the three-game winning streak the Patriots carried into Sunday’s matchup with the Browns.
The Week 7 blowout of the New York Jets didn’t count because … it was against the Jets. New England’s win over the Los Angeles Chargers the following week wasn’t all that impressive, due to the offense’s sluggish performance. Last Sunday’s victory over the Carolina Panthers was more about Sam Darnold’s ineptitude than anything the Patriots did.
The legitimacy of those claims is up for debate. However, no such asterisks can be placed on the Patriots’ complete dismantling of Cleveland on Sunday.
Both teams entered the matchup with 5-4 records, jockeying for playoff position in a crowded AFC. The Browns were coming off an impressive performance over the talented Cincinnati Bengals. They feature a talented offense and athletic defense, led by an imposing front seven.
None of that mattered to the Patriots, who earned a 45-7 win for their fourth straight victory. It was a vintage Foxboro butt-whooping that looked something out of the Tom Brady era. There were even Veterans Day ceremonies that gave Bill Belichick “chills.”
And, yes, the Browns didn’t have star running back Nick Chubb in the lineup, but not even Walter Payton would’ve changed the outcome of this game.
Cleveland marched down the field on the first drive of the game, punching it in the end zone on fourth down. There was a collective “Uh-oh” in Gillette Stadium. But the Patriots defense shut out the Browns the rest of the way, and the offense put forth its most impressive performance of the season.
Mac Jones, on the heels of two underwhelming games, rebounded with 19 completions out of 23 passes, 198 yards and the first three-TD pass game of his career. The Patriots gained 184 yards on the ground, including 100 from emerging rookie standout Rhamondre Stevenson, who had two scores. Hunter Henry got his seventh touchdown in seven games; Kendrick Bourne had 141 all-purpose yards; Kyle Dugger picked off Baker Mayfield; and Trent Brown played!
The cherry on top: Jakobi Meyers hauling in the first touchdown reception of his NFL career.
It was a thorough, complete beatdown by the Patriots. It also bolstered their ever-improving playoff chances.
We brought it up last week, but it’s worth mentioning again: After New England’s Oct. 17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, FiveThirtyEight gave the Patriots a 21% chance of making the playoffs and a 5% chance of winning the AFC East. Now? Those numbers are 74% and 26%, respectively.
Not to get ahead of ourselves, but their chances of winning Super Bowl LVI have gone up from 0.4% to a whopping 4% — yes, we’re telling you there’s a chance.
The 6-4 Patriots now are sixth in the AFC standings, good for the second of three wild card spots. They trail the Buffalo Bills by a half-game for first place in the division. Those two teams will play twice in December. Considering the importance of in-conference record in playoff tiebreakers, New England’s win over Cleveland could prove enormous, as could its victory over the 5-4 Chargers, who lost Sunday and now are in seventh. Triumphs over the Tennesee Titans on Nov. 28 and Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 19 — those teams currently are 8-2 and 5-5, respectively — also would go a long way toward sending the Patriots back to the postseason.
(You can click here for the up-to-date NFL standings.)
None of this is to say the Patriots are locks to make the playoffs. If there’s anything we’ve learned this season, it’s that anyone in the NFL can lose any Sunday. Plus, New England remains an imperfect team that has a lot of work to do before it can be considered great.
But the arrow in Foxboro unquestionably is pointing upward. The Patriots, on the brink of disaster only a month ago, are starting to look like real contenders in the wide-open AFC.