With just four games left in the regular season, each weekend will come into focus as it relates to possible postseason scenarios. Week 14 is the first weekend that the New England Patriots have an opportunity to punch their ticket to the playoffs, and they can do so in two different ways.
The Patriots can capture their fifth consecutive AFC East division title with a win against Cleveland and a Dolphins loss to the Steelers. They can also qualify for the playoffs by beating the Browns and having the Ravens lose to Minnesota.
But the Cleveland Browns stand in the way, and though the team’s record suggests a struggling season (they’re just 4-8), we saw last Sunday that the disparity in talent across the NFL is much narrower than records often suggest, as the then 2-9 Texans gave the Patriots all that they could handle.
Just as the Patriots refused to look past the Texans in the week leading up to their game in Week 13, they’re not taking the bait to play the what-if game on playoff talk this week. The team has conveyed that while making the playoffs and winning the division is an annual goal, the focus this week remains on the Browns.
And with that in mind, here’s the five things we’ll be watching for as the Patriots host the Browns this Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
1. First half efficiency. One of the themes of the week in talking to Patriots players has been the need to start faster against Cleveland. In the past two weeks, the Patriots have trailed by an average of 17 points at halftime. Though those leads have not proved insurmountable -- they’ve overcome each of them -- the Patriots fully understand they cannot sustain this pattern of slow starts and expect to win every week. Pinpointing specifically what has gone wrong has not been easy, as the consensus appears to be that the Patriots simply need to execute better and avoid first-half turnovers.
2. Return of Ridley? After sitting out last week because of fumbling issues, will running back Stevan Ridley be back in the mix? That’s one of the biggest questions surrounding this Sunday, as the third-year back continues to be a player of note. The Patriots were able to run the ball effectively enough to win in Ridley’s absence last Sunday, but he’s their most talented rusher and a potential game-changer. If he sits again, one could wonder if he’ll become part of the running back rotation at any point this season, barring an injury. If he returns, how much will he be utilized?
3. Slowing Gordon. No hyperbole here -- Josh Gordon has ascended to the level of the NFL’s elite wide receivers. With nearly 500 yards receiving over his past two games, Gordon has soared to second in the NFL in receiving yards for the season, and is averaging the second most receiving yards per game in a single season in NFL history (124.9). Aqib Talib shared praise for Gordon this week, comparing him to the likes of Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson, and it would seem likely that Talib will be used to shadow and try to contain Gordon on Sunday. He’s done well to limit other top receivers, but this Sunday could be his biggest test yet.
4. Run defense. Injuries have dramatically impacted the Patriots’ ability to stop the run, as they’ve slid down to 31st in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing more than 138 yards per game. The Broncos and Texans each had their way on the ground against the Patriots, and they’ll need to tighten the clamps this Sunday against Cleveland. If there was ever an opponent to help the team get back on track, the Browns are one of the candidates, as they rank fifth-worst in the NFL at just 82.3 rushing yards per game, including just 3.7 yards per carry. They have a rotation of backs that includes veteran Willis McGahee and capable pass-catcher Chris Ogbonnaya. The Patriots must slow whoever takes the lead role on Sunday.
5. Keeping Brady upright. New Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton has roots with the Pittsburgh Steelers and a pressure-oriented front that he brought with him to both Arizona and now Cleveland. While serving as the Cardinals' coordinator in 2012, Horton schemed up perhaps the best game plane to slow down the Patriots that they saw all season, as Brady was sacked four times (he was sacked just 23 times in the other 15 games) and the Patriots were held to a season-low 18 points. The personnel is different in Cleveland, but Horton has some of the same elements at his disposal, and finding a way to slow down this attack much more effectively than they did a season ago will be critical for the Patriots on Sunday.