Don’t look now, but the Patriots are beginning to look a lot like contenders to win the AFC.
Sure, they’re breaking in a rookie quarterback, Mac Jones, and are a modest 5-4 entering Sunday’s game against the Browns (5-4) at Gillette Stadium. But the Patriots have won their past three games, and Bill Belichick teams traditionally get better in the second half of the season.
The Patriots, who are a mere half-game behind the Bills (5-3) for first place in the AFC East, have defeated the Jets, Chargers and Panthers in their past three games.
The Browns, who finally rid themselves of the Odell Beckham Jr. headache this week, are also playing their best football of the season, fresh off a rout of the Bengals last Sunday.
This showdown figures to have a significant impact on the playoff race in the AFC, which is wide open, with no dominant teams. The result could come into play with playoff tiebreakers in terms of head-to-head and conference records.
A month ago, the Patriots were struggling at 2-4 after an overtime loss to the Cowboys. That record included a rare 0-4 mark at home. They currently occupy the AFC’s third and final wild-card playoff spot, but are trying to figure out a way to win at Gillette, where they’ve dominated for decades.
“My mindset, and I’m pretty sure a lot of guys in the locker room [was]: We were 2-4, but every game we could have won,” Patriots defensive tackle Davon Godchaux told reporters. “There was never [a loss] where you were like, ‘Oh, we got blown out.’ We knew we had a good team all along. You kind of see that right now with our three-game win streak, and we’ve got to keep it going this week against a good Cleveland Browns team.”
If the Patriots are going to continue their success on Sunday, they know they’re going to have to at least slow the Browns’ powerful rushing attack, which is ranked second in the NFL in yards with 1,442 and first in TDs with 16.
Nick Chubb, who has been dealing with COVID-19 protocols and will be out for this game, has 721 rushing yards and six touchdowns while averaging a robust 6.0 yards per carry — and he already has missed two games. Kareem Hunt had 351 yards and five TDs before he hurt his calf, and D’Ernest Johnson has 195 yards and two TDs replacing one or both.
Of their 16 rushing TDs, the Browns have four that have gone for 20 or more yards.
The Patriots’ run defense has been stout lately, dominating the Carolina front last Sunday in holding the Panthers to six points and 250 yards of offense.
“Everyone’s been talking about how well we’ve been doing, and I’m sure [the Browns] are going to see that as motivation and inspiration or whatever,” New England linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “It’s going to be good up front. It’s going to be a battle of the trenches, and I think the game’s probably going to be won there.”
Patriots receiver Jakobi Meyers praised the veteran leadership on the team for holding it together through the early struggles.
“It just says a lot about the guys we’ve got in the room — a lot of great leaders,” Meyers told reporters. “[We’ve got] a lot of great character, just everybody bonding together, going out there and fighting hard, knowing that we’ve got something special in the locker room.’’
It appears that some of the new players in the New England locker room are beginning to hit their strides. Jones has played well for a rookie quarterback. Tight end Hunter Henry, an offseason acquisition, was quiet early in the season, but has caught TD passes in five of his past six games.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who threw for 218 yards and two TDs against the Bengals last week, must watch out for New England cornerback J.C. Jackson, who leads the NFL with 11 takeaways. Jackson is looking to become the first Patriots player to record back-to-back games with at least two interceptions since Mike Haynes in 1976.
Jackson is tied for first in the NFL with the Cowboys’ Trevon Diggs with 12 passes defensed, and he has the most interceptions since he entered the league as a rookie free agent in 2018 with 22.
The Browns’ top defensive player is Myles Garrett, who leads the NFL with 12 sacks, has 12 tackles for a loss and 23 quarterback hits. The Browns forced three turnovers against Cincinnati last week and sacked quarterback Joe Burrow five times.
“We know what’s ahead of us,” Meyers said. “We know what’s at stake.’’
The Patriots are 7-5 all-time against the Browns in games played in New England, including 4-0 at Gillette Stadium.
Belichick, who coached the Browns from 1991-95, is seeking his 250th regular-season win with the Patriots, which would allow him to join Tom Landy (250), Don Shula (257) and George Halas (318) as the fourth coach with to reach that career threshold with one team.