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Thursday, December 5, 2013
Double Coverage: Browns at Patriots

By Pat McManamon and Mike Reiss

Josh Gordon and Aqib Talib
Josh Gordon is one player Aqib Talib and the New England defense need to keep an eye on.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The last time the New England Patriots faced the Cleveland Browns, it wasn’t pretty. The Browns posted a resounding 34-14 win.

Eric Mangini was the Browns’ coach at the time, Mike Holmgren was the president and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was a still-learning-the-ropes rookie whose miscue in attempting to field a kickoff contributed to a forgettable on-the-road disaster for New England.

The year was 2010, and that game turned out to be a high point for Mangini before he ultimately was fired at the end of the season. The Browns later hired Pat Shurmur as coach, but he was let go after two seasons, in part because of a change in ownership and front-office structure.

The new Browns regime, led by CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi, has since talked about building a sustainable team with the long haul in mind. One model it'd be happy to emulate is that of the Patriots, who just clinched their 13th straight winning season, three shy of the post-NFL-merger record set by the Cowboys and 49ers.

Here to break down the matchup are ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Pat McManamon (Browns):

Reiss: Pat, let’s open it up with a big-picture look at the Browns. Lombardi worked under Bill Belichick with the Browns in the early-to-mid 1990s, and that connection has been well documented. I often enjoyed reading and listening to Lombardi’s media-based analysis, and now he’s back in the team-building business. How would you describe his first year on the job and how the Browns are positioning themselves for sustainability?

McManamon: Well, Mike, the short term is pretty gruesome. Last weekend’s loss to Jacksonville was as bad as any since 1999, and the team is an emotional mess. Cleveland actually believed it could and would take a step forward this season, but in all likelihood the Browns are headed for their sixth season in a row with four or five wins. How’s that for consistency and sustainability? The only thing the Browns confirmed this season is they’d rather not have Brandon Weeden at quarterback next season. Other than that, they’re as muddled today as they were when training camp started. The drafted players have not helped, there is no run game, there is no second receiver and the defense let Chad Henne go 80 yards for a game-winning drive on Sunday. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln ...

Mike, as you say, the Patriots are a model of sustainability. Part of that reason is they hit on Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. How much of their sustained success is due to Brady and how much is due to other factors? And can you say what those factors are that the Browns might be lacking?

Reiss: Brady is a huge factor in what the Patriots have accomplished, as his excellence helps mask other deficiencies. At the same time, it was no fluke that in the one year he tore his ACL on the 15th offensive play of the season (2008), the Patriots finished with an 11-5 record. That accomplishment continues to look better as the years go by, especially when looking at a team like the 2013 Packers and how they are struggling without injured starter Aaron Rodgers in recent weeks.

Belichick has built a strong program from top to bottom, and one of the key parts of it is depth. Many teams talk about building a roster that is strong from 1 to 61 (53-man roster plus eight-man practice squad), but it takes discipline to follow through on it. Some unpopular decisions have to be made at times for clubs that take that approach. This year is a good example, as the Patriots have lost some big-time players on defense (Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo) to season-ending injuries, but it hasn’t sunk their season. This is an exceptionally well-coached team, and the players, for the most part, buy in to the team concept.

So, no doubt, it’s huge to have someone like Brady to build around. And that’s a position that I’d expect, from this faraway view, the Browns to target in 2014. That said, quarterback Brian Hoyer was the backup in New England from 2009 to 2011, and it looked like he created a spark for the Browns before tearing his ACL. What do you think his future looks like in Cleveland?

McManamon: He did create a spark, and at this moment he probably heads into 2014 as the Browns' starter. Hoyer is recovering and rehabbing aggressively from his surgery, to the point that no limp or sign of the injury is visible when he walks. Hoyer played with smarts and savvy, and played well. But the problem is that he played only two games, which is hardly a fair sample size. So Hoyer should expect competition, whether it’s another veteran free agent, whether it’s Jason Campbell returning or whether it’s a drafted player. Hoyer will be back, but he’ll have to prove himself again.

Mike, Josh Gordon is the Browns' lone bright spot. His 498 receiving yards over the past two games is an NFL record. He’s also the first to have more than 200 yards in a season. Am I correct in assuming that Aqib Talib will cover him, and what do you think Belichick will do to disrupt Gordon’s route running? The guy is so big and strong that it’s extremely hard to rough him up at the line the way Belichick likes to do.

Reiss: One thing Belichick often says is that if a defense decides it’s going to take away something from an offense, it usually can. It’s just a matter of how many resources the defense wants to devote to do so because it will weaken itself in other areas. Several times this season, we’ve seen Talib match up against the opponent’s top receiver, and outside of one game, Nov. 18 at Carolina against Steve Smith, he has been excellent. So it makes sense to think that would be a matchup the Patriots consider, in addition to devoting safety help to Gordon’s side of the field, if they feel that strongly about Gordon’s big-play ability. It doesn’t look like the Browns have many other top weapons that could make that type of plan hurt.

Pat, if we go back to our early-season predictions, which show that the term “expert” should be taken lightly in my case, I picked the Browns as a surprise playoff team in part because I thought their defense would carry them. Call it my mistake by the Lake. Even as they are building with 2014 in mind, which seemed to be the plan from the get-go, I thought they’d be further along this year. So why the struggles?

McManamon: Pretty simple -- they were overrated. The Browns have some decent players, and one guy pushing to be great (Joe Haden), but they don’t have a great player yet. Combine that with learning a new system and an offense that has turned the ball over 11 times the past three games, and struggles will follow. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton has backed up his claims about his guys with numbers, but at some point the old adage “stats are for losers” comes into play. No defense that gives up an 80-yard touchdown drive to the 32nd-ranked offense can call itself great, or even good.

Mike, on paper, this is a huge mismatch. Do you see any way Brady or Belichick kicks this away and lets the Browns steal this game?

Reiss: I don’t, Pat, but let’s toss out a scenario that could give the Browns their best chance. They would have to possess the ball, playing keep-away from Brady, and somehow come up with a “bonus” score on either defense or special teams. The Patriots’ defense has looked vulnerable the past two games, so it’s not like this is an invincible unit that can’t be exploited in certain areas. But given the quarterback questions the Browns have entering this one, and their general struggles overall, it’s just hard for me to see how they can escape Gillette Stadium -- traditionally one of the toughest places to win at this time of year -- with a victory unless Belichick decided to give his pal Lombardi an early holiday gift to take some of the pressure off him.