The New England Patriots blew out the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, winning 45-7 at Gillette Stadium. Here are nine things we learned in that Week 10 matchup:
1. This run is no fluke. The Patriots are legit contenders in the AFC
Now, is this a team that can win a Super Bowl this season? We’re not ready to make that declaration. But after what we’ve witnessed during this four-game winning streak — and even in some of their close losses earlier in the campaign — the Patriots must be respected as one of the toughest outs in the AFC.
Consider this: Ten weeks in, only one AFC team has more wins than the 6-4 Patriots. That’s the 8-2 Tennessee Titans, who narrowly beat the Trevor Siemian-led New Orleans Saints on Sunday and have a baffling loss to the terrible New York Jets on their résumé.
FiveThirtyEight now gives New England — which has outscored opponents 150-50 over the last four games — a 74% chance to make the playoffs and a 26% chance to win the AFC East. That’s up from 21% and 5% a month ago, respectively. If the season ended today, the Patriots would earn the conference’s second wild-card berth and enter the postseason as the No. 6 seed.
After visiting the Atlanta Falcons this Thursday in a game they should win, the Patriots will host the Titans, then face the division rival Buffalo Bills twice in a three-game span, with a bye week and road matchup with the feisty Indianapolis Colts mixed in. The Bills currently lead the Patriots by just a half-game in the AFC East standings.
That’s a crucial stretch for the Patriots, who, despite their recent success, shouldn’t be feeling comfortable in their current position. Ten of the AFC’s 16 teams have either five or six wins, making for a wide-open and unpredictable playoff chase.
2. Mac Jones put those rookie wall concerns to bed
After scuffling at times in wins over the Los Angeles Chargers and Carolina Panthers, Jones rebounded with the best performance of his young career against the Browns. He set new career highs in completion percentage (82.6%) and passer rating (142.1), throwing for 198 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. His 8.6 yards-per-attempt average was his second-best in 10 pro starts.
Screen passes were effective against Cleveland’s formidable pass rush, but this wasn’t a game full of dinking and dunking for the Patriots’ rookie quarterback. Jones went 6-for-7 on throws that traveled at least 10 yards in the air, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Those included two of his prettiest passes of the season to date: a perfectly placed 23-yard touchdown to Kendrick Bourne between two defenders and a 19-yard over-the-shoulder ball to a well-covered Hunter Henry.
Jones also was 6-of-7 on third down, with the lone incompletion coming on a pass that was batted at the line by star edge rusher Myles Garrett. Simply put, he was excellent, as was the Patriots’ offense as a whole. Which brings us to …
3. Josh McDaniels called one heck of a game
Two days after head coach Bill Belichick glowingly compared him to Nick Saban, the Patriots’ offensive coordinator rolled out an expertly crafted game plan that bamboozled the NFL’s 11th-ranked scoring defense.
The Patriots scored on seven of their eight possessions, excluding an end-of-game kneel down. They had three 90-plus-yard touchdown drives for the first time in the Belichick era, including their first 99-yard march since 2011 (and third since 1980). They converted 77.8% of their third downs (7 of 9), went 5-for-6 in the red zone and averaged 7.3 yards per play.
All the while, they largely neutralized Garrett, who beat Isaiah Wynn for a sack on the Patriots’ opening possession and had the aforementioned pass breakup but otherwise was a non-factor. The NFL sack leader finished with just one tackle and no additional QB hits, with McDaniels employing frequent misdirection, chips and cut blocks to blunt his impact. After the game, Garrett attributed the Patriots’ offensive success, especially on third down, to “great play-calling.”
McDaniels hasn’t been the most popular figure among Patriots fans this season, but the work he’s done with Jones and this offense could make him a more desirable head-coaching candidate than he was in recent years.
4. The Patriots have one of the NFL’s top defenses
Before we get to some other offensive standouts, we need to give the appropriate credit to the Patriots’ defense, which has allowed 13, 24, six and now seven points during this win streak. That unit opened Sunday’s game by surrendering an 84-yard touchdown drive but was impassable thereafter.
Cleveland managed just two first downs over its final four first-half possessions and didn’t run another play in Patriots territory until there were less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter. New England overwhelmed (and eventually injured) Baker Mayfield, who completed 11 of 21 passes for 73 yards and threw a pivotal second-quarter interception to safety Kyle Dugger. The Patriots scored one play later to take a 14-7 lead they would not relinquish.
Over the last three games, opposing starting quarterbacks are completing 50.6% of their passes for a total of 468 yards, three touchdowns and six interceptions against this New England defense.
Six different Patriots defenders were in on sacks against the Browns, who were playing without star running back Nick Chubb. Matthew Judon had a QB hit, a half-sack and a drawn hold in one three-play span. Kyle Van Noy had a sack, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble after tallying four pass breakups in his previous three games. J.C. Jackson (two PBUs) was nearly flawless as the Patriots’ secondary held Browns wide receivers to five catches on 16 targets for 42 yards.
5. Rhamondre Stevenson is a stud
Damien Harris has been one of the NFL’s most productive rushers this season. He was sidelined Sunday, sitting out with a concussion. How did the Patriots respond? Only by piling up 184 rushing yards — 33 more than they had in any of their first nine games — against a Browns team that entered ranked fifth in Football Outsiders’ run defense DVOA.
Brandon Bolden (32 rushing yards) and Bourne (43) made helpful contributions, but the star of the show was Stevenson, who finished with an even 100 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. The hard-charging fourth-round rookie also added four catches on five targets, continuing to showcase the dual-threat ability that Harris, for all his ground-game prowess, has lacked. And he did this all after a head injury prevented him from practicing during the week.
It will be interesting to see whether Stevenson, who now has back-to-back games with 100 yards from scrimmage, eats into Harris’ touches moving forward. Regardless, he looks like another clear hit in a 2021 draft class that’s also produced Jones (first round) and blossoming defensive tackle Christian Barmore (second).
Between this class and the 2020 one that yielded Dugger, Josh Uche and Mike Onwenu, the Patriots are constructing a promising young core.
6. Jakobi Meyers’ curse has been lifted
He finally scored a touchdown! It finally happened!
Meyers said seeing nearly the entire Patriots sideline rush down to celebrate his long-awaited score meant even more to him than the touchdown itself.
8. Trent Brown still is the Patriots’ top right tackle
When the Patriots activated Brown off injured reserve on Saturday, it wasn’t clear how he’d fit back into their offensive line equation. Right tackle? Left tackle? Swing tackle? New England opted to keep him on the right side, leave Ted Karras at left guard and bump Onwenu into a reserve role.
Onwenu replaced Brown for one series late in the first half, but the latter played the majority of the Patriots’ offensive snaps and didn’t make any glaring errors. It was Brown’s first game action since he suffered a calf injury on the opening series of Week 1.
“I forgot how fun it is,” Brown said after the game. “It feels like it’s been three years since I’ve played ball and had fun playing ball.”
9. Hunter Henry is emerging as one of the NFL’s premier red-zone threats
The tight end’s per-game reception (3.1) and yardage (35.3) numbers haven’t been anything remarkable this season, but his red-zone production is elite. With two more touchdown catches Sunday, Henry now has seven in his last seven games, a total only four NFL players (Cooper Kupp, Mike Evans, D.K. Metcalf and Tyreek Hill) have eclipsed all season.
It’s hard to overstate how beneficial this has been for the Patriots’ offense. New England had just six red-zone touchdown passes all of last season, with no player scoring more than two.
NESN’s New England football takeaways is presented by Valvoline Instant Oil Change