How the New England Patriots will beat the Cleveland Browns in Week 10

Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images) /

The New England Patriots have played in some big games this season, but none have been as important as their upcoming Week 10 matchup against the Cleveland Browns. Both teams are 5-4 heading into the game, and are battling for positioning as the Wild Card race begins to heat up. The Patriots find themselves in the #7 seed currently, while the Browns are on the outside looking in at the #9 spot.

For the Patriots, it’s been a pretty remarkable turn around considering this team was just 2-4 three weeks ago. They sandwiched a couple of straightforward victories against the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers around a huge victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, proving New England could come up with big plays when needed to win against upper-echelon opponents. Now they are going to have to do it again against a tough Browns team.

The Browns have had an interesting season to date. After making it all the way to the AFC Divisional Round last season, and nearly pulling off an upset over the Kansas City Chiefs, many expected the Browns would be neck and neck with the Baltimore Ravens a top the AFC North. But that hasn’t been the case, and whether it’s been starters such as Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb dealing with injuries, or the Odell Beckham Jr. drama, things haven’t gone Cleveland’s way so far.

Much has been made about Beckham potentially finding his way to New England, but for Cleveland, it seems like they were happy to see him go. They responded with a blowout 41-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last week, proving that they are still a playoff contender. With the Browns seemingly back on track, the Patriots are going to have to grind out another victory against a tough team if they want to hold onto their Wild Card spot.

The New England Patriots offensive gameplan

The New England Patriots seem to be finding their offensive identity more and more each week. The running game has become more and more prominent with each passing week, with Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, and Brandon Bolden all starring in their Week 9 victory over the Carolina Panthers. Mac Jones has continued to progress in his development during his rookie season, but the training wheels have yet to really come off for the passing game.

That may have to change this week if the Patriots want to win. Both Harris and Stevenson are in the concussion protocol right now, which doesn’t exactly bode well for their chances of suiting for their upcoming game. That would leave Bolden and J.J. Taylor as the only two backs available against Cleveland, which isn’t exactly ideal.

Maybe one of Harris or Stevenson can find their way out of the protocol before game-time on Sunday, but you cannot count on that to happen. Bolden has been productive out of the backfield as a pass catcher, but he cannot be counted on as a lead back. Taylor is a good change of pace back, but he really hasn’t ever seemed capable of handling a full workload either. Making matters worse is the fact that Cleveland is allowing just 84.8 rushing yards per game this season.

So it appears the passing attack will have to be the focal point of the offensive gameplan this week, which probably isn’t what the coaching staff wants. Cleveland is holding opponents to just 224.9 passing yards per game despite their secondary not really playing all that well this season. What has stepped up though is their pass rush, and whether or not the Pats offensive line can protect Jones in this one could end up being the determining factor.

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The Browns pass rush is led by their monster defensive end Myles Garrett, who currently leads the NFL with 12 sacks through just nine games, putting him on pace to break the NFL sack record this season. He should get double teamed throughout in this one, but chances are he will still find a way to get to Jones at least once. Behind him is Jadeveon Clowney, who isn’t the player he once was, but still cannot be ignored. Expect the Browns to pressure Jones early and often.

The key here will be getting the ball out before the pressure gets to Jones. When targeted, the Browns secondary really hasn’t been that good this season. John Johnson III has been their best cover guy at free safety, but pretty much everyone else has struggled at various times this season.

Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II are Cleveland’s top two corners, but both have been fairly mediocre in coverage throughout the season. Ward had a highlight reel pick six last week against Cincy, but opposing passers are completing 61.5 percent of their passes when they target him. For Newsome, that number is a bit better at 60.6 percent. Both players have a pass rating allowed above 80, which is OK, but not something you are looking for from both of your top corners.

Behind them, things get worse. Slot corner Troy Hill has followed up a breakout 2020 season by posting a pass rating allowed of 115.5. Starting strong safety Ronnie Harrison Jr. has allowed five passing touchdowns as the closest person in coverage.

If Jones can get the ball out before Garrett and co. get to him, this secondary is very beatable. Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne should all find more room to worth with than they did last time out against the Panthers. If Jones can get into a rhythm early on, the New England Patriots offense should be in a good position to put up some points against a vulnerable Browns defense.

The New England Patriots defensive gameplan

Similar to the offense, the defense has really stepped up over the last few weeks to help this team pull out some crucial victories. The secondary has somehow gotten better despite losing top slot corner Jonathan Jones for the season, and while the sack numbers haven’t increased, the pass rush has looked more and more dangerous with each passing week.

There probably isn’t a team that gets more out of every player on their offense than the Browns. Their starting quarterback, Baker Mayfield, loves to spread the ball around, and that’s probably one of the top reasons he forced Beckham to skip town. They also lean on a running back by committee strategy despite having one of the best running backs in the league in Nick Chubb on their roster.

That could be set to change for this one though, as Chubb is currently out with COVID-19 and appears set to miss the contest. Second string running back Kareem Hunt is also on injured reserve and doesn’t appear set to return for this one. That leaves third year running back D’Ernest Johnson as the top option.

While the New England Patriots can breath a sigh of relief that they appear set to avoid having to stop Chubb and Hunt, things won’t be much easier with Johnson leading the way. In his lone start of the season, Johnson ran all over the Denver Broncos to the tune of 146 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. He also caught a pair of passes for 22 yards and another score. For reference, Cleveland won the game 17-14, so his two scores were vital.

Just because Cleveland won’t have their top guys doesn’t mean they can take their eye off the run game. Johnson proved he’s capable of stepping up when needed, and can hurt this defense if they leave him unaccounted for. Lawrence Guy and rookie standout Christian Barmore will have their hands full in the run game regardless of who is taking handoffs from Mayfield.

In terms of the passing game, nobody really knows what to expect. Mayfield is currently gutting out a shoulder injury that has at times reduced the Browns passing attack to nothing, and other times hasn’t affected him at all. He seemed to have a weight lifted off his shoulders last week with Beckham out of the picture, which could become an issue for the New England Patriots this week.

As said before, Mayfield loves to spread the ball around. Cleveland’s top receiver on the season is their second tight end, David Njoku, who has just 341 yards through nine games. Even then, about half of Njoku’s receiving output came in their Week 5 loss against the Los Angeles Chargers, in which he caught seven passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. You can key in on whoever you want, but Mayfield is going to find the open receiver.

In terms of talent, Cleveland’s top receiver is Jarvis Landry. Landry has struggled to stay on the field this season, playing just five games so far, and even when he has been on the field, he’s struggled to get on the same page as Mayfield. When targeted though, Landry is one of the best receivers in the league, and he will probably get shadowed by J.C. Jackson for most of the game.

Cleveland also has a pair of dangerous tight ends in Austin Hooper and the previously mentioned Njoku. Neither has been very consistent so far, but both are capable of getting open in the middle of the field and breaking off long gains. It wouldn’t be surprising to see some more zone coverages if two tight ends end up on the field.

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With all that in mind, the Patriots first step defensively is going to be slowing down the running game. Cleveland is averaging 160.2 yards per game on the ground, which has helped mask some of Mayfield’s struggles this season. If they can force Cleveland to try to beat them through the air, the Patriots secondary should be able to hold the Browns at bay for most of the afternoon.

If the New England Patriots can get an early lead on the Browns in this one, they will be in great position to pull out a victory. Mayfield has been inconsistent on the season, and he may not have enough targets at his disposal against a tough secondary. It’s going to be a tough game, but a Patriots victory would provide a huge boost to their playoff hopes, and could end up making the AFC East much more interesting.