The last time the Cleveland Browns played, a creative defensive plan forced Drew Brees into four interceptions. Brees is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the NFL, but he was fooled by different fronts and disguised coverages that Browns coach Eric Mangini loves to use.
Sunday, though, the Browns face a quarterback who might be smarter than Brees, and a coach who pushes the intelligence level each and every week. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots visit with the best record in the league, and with the benefit of time to watch tape of the Browns’ approach against New Orleans.
Bill Belichick will be able to dissect what the Browns did to Brees, and find weaknesses. And Brady is masterful at guiding the offense. This season he has the Patriots at 6-1 despite the fact he has no standout at wide receiver following the trade of Randy Moss, and he has no every-down running back (New England uses a committee).
The Browns are likely to send rookie Colt McCoy out to start his third game in a row. This means that McCoy’s first three NFL starts were at Pittsburgh, at New Orleans and at home against Belichick’s defense, which might the most confusing in the league. Mangini, after all, readily admits that he learned almost everything he knows from Belichick.
The Browns enter the game buoyed by the win over the Saints. But they got those four picks off Brees, and returned two for touchdowns. Those are occurrences that do not seem likely to happen twice in a season — especially when Brady is the opposing quarterback.
Keys for the Browns
• Be smart against Brady. No quarterback is better at recognizing a defense before the snap, or making the defense pay. The Browns might be wise to be a little more vanilla this weekend, and hope to force New England to use 15 plays if it wants to score.
• Make something happen on special teams. Two trick plays helped the Browns in their win over the Saints. The Browns might need at least one more against the Patriots. What would be better, though, is if they can finally get Josh Cribbs free on a return. When Cribbs contributes, the Browns play well.
Keys for the Patriots
• No shame in being a Brady bunch. Brady is playing at an MVP level, throwing to receivers most folks would wonder about. Brady shrugs it off and just plays smart, sound football. While many teams start with the run, the Patriots start with Brady. He plays well, they succeed.
• Confuse McCoy. No surprise here. McCoy is a rookie, and Belichick ought to win the chess match against a rookie. The Browns have done a good job of protecting McCoy in his first two starts, but he might have to work a little bit harder this weekend. New England has nobody great on defense, but the sum of its parts is greater than the individuals. A rookie always has an off game; this might be McCoy’s.
It was surprising that the Browns were able to force Brees into so many mistakes. Borderline beyond belief. It would be shocking if they can do the same to Brady. He’s too good, too smart, too experienced and too much the best player in the league to succumb to the same things. Expect the Browns to keep it close. Expect Brady to win it for New England. Patriots 24–17.