Jimmy Garoppolo earned himself a future NFL starting job. Rookie Jacoby Brissett reminded us about heart and toughness. LeGarrette Blount became the 575th Patriot in the last decade-plus to rebuild his career after being left for dead by other teams. It all added up to a 3-1 record, good enough to put the New England Patriots atop their division. Missing their Most Valuable Player, this NFL juggernaut emerged from 2016’s first quarter in good shape.
Tom Brady’s about to make them great.
No amount of quality quarterback play can make up for one of the greatest of all time under center. After a browbeating by the Buffalo Bills in Week 4, knocking the Pats off balance, it was clear cracks were beginning to show in the team’s more limited offensive scheme without Brady. Future Hall of Fame head coach Bill Belichick pulled out all the stops; the way in which he managed during this four-week stretch is commendable.
But now? The coaching staff can sit back and take a breath. Brady’s return seals up most offensive weaknesses, opens up more pathways for Blount and allows talented pass catchers like Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski to spread the field.
No doubt, the Pats’ offense is about to get downright scary. And which team does a fired-up New England get in Brady’s first game back? Why, it’s the only winless team left in the NFL, a Cleveland Browns franchise whose defense allows a whopping 28.8 points per game. Toss in rookie quarterback, Cody Kessler and a slew of injuries and we have all the makings of a mismatch on paper.
Can the Browns pull out some sort of miracle instead? Seems impossible. But that’s why they play the games….
Series History: Cleveland leads 13-10-0 (Patriots, though are 6-2-0 since Browns “returned” to the league in 1999)
New England at Cleveland
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 9 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: New England -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Tom Brady Look Rusty?
Brady has just a week of practice to “get back in the swing” after his four-game suspension. But it’s not like this veteran wasn’t prepared; he played two preseason games, connecting on 19 of 35 passes for 242 yards, two touchdowns and a pick. We’re also talking about a guaranteed Hall of Famer and one of the hardest workers in the game. Brady takes after his head coach, maintained a rigorous strength and conditioning program while he was away from his team and has studied up for this game for weeks. The guy knew when he’d be back... and it shows.
“I didn’t notice any difference,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said about Brady’s practice this week in a conference call with reporters. “Tommy looks ready to go.”
Add in the chemistry already established among Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, even Danny Amendola and it’s clear Brady should get right back on pace. He threw for 4,770 yards last season, 36 touchdowns and just seven interceptions; his QB rating was a stellar 102.2. There’s nothing this weekend to indicate he won’t continue that rhythmic success at age 39 – especially with a chip on his shoulder after the NFL got its way with the Deflategate suspension.
2. Doing it With “D”
While Brady commands the offense the Patriots’ defense also will have a chance to shine Sunday. Overlooked so far due to the Broncos’ strong start (and the Vikings in the NFC), this unit is allowing just 15.3 points per game, best in the AFC while already totaling seven takeaways.
Who’s one of the Pats leaders on “D?” Why none other than a former Brown, of course, another example of how that luckless franchise lets the wrong people go or leave via free agency. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who is tied for second in the NFL with six tackles for a loss already and also has three sacks, is on pace for a career year. Linebacker Jamie Collins already has two interceptions and running mate Dont’a Hightower is a presence that can’t be ignored.
The secondary, led by seven-year vet Devin McCourty has been solid if not spectacular. As usual, this unit is playing in a team-first mindset, the Bill Belichick way, while checking egos at the door. It’s working.
3. Cleveland Rocked
For the Browns, it’s already a lost season with their top two quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown, sitting on the sidelines. Cody Kessler is competent considering the circumstances but he’s a rookie without his top two wide receivers: Josh Gordon (rehab, likely done with the team) and rookie Corey Coleman (broken hand).
That leaves Terrelle Pryor, a quarterback-turned-wide receiver the team has been trying to utilize all over the field, but it hurts when there are limited playmakers around him. Tight end Gary Barnidge, a breakout star last season has been disappointing. And the rest of the receiving corps, made up of Duke Johnson (a pass-catching RB), Ricardo Louis (a rookie), Andrew Hawkins, and Rashard Higgins (another rookie) is a Who’s Who of who cares. It limits the ability of talented Isaiah Crowell to push the rushing attack, although he’s done well thus far. He leads the NFL with 394 rushing yards, averaging a whopping 6.5 yards per carry. It’s hard, though to be that much of a weapon when the lack of any others forces the defense to key on you virtually every play.
The bad vibes spread back to the defense and even special teams. Who can forget kicker Cody Parkey missing three field goals in the Week 3 overtime loss to the Dolphins, including a 46-yarder that could have won the game at the end of regulation? It could have been one of the few bright spots in what’s quickly becoming a year to tank.
Tom Brady is back. Cleveland is crippled. And let’s not forget Bill Belichick once got fired from this town. Need we say more?
A note for Browns fans heading to the stadium: bring some paper bags, please. You won’t want to see this game by the second quarter.
Prediction: New England 38, Cleveland 10
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.