FOXBOROUGH -- Halfway through the regular season, the time had come for the bruised and battered Patriots to finally catch a break.
They got it in the form of a Cleveland team whose preferred quarterback, Kelly Holcomb, has a broken right fibula -- a bleeding broken right fibula, actually -- so painful he could not start yesterday's game at Gillette Stadium, though he was pressed into action when starter Tim Couch sprained his right thumb near the end of the first half. A team without its stud running back, former Boston College star William Green, who sat with an injured right shoulder. A team without three of its opening-day starters on the offensive line. "Join the club, buddy," Tedy Bruschi said. "It's not a matter of who's down but who's in there and are they getting the job done."
That, in a nutshell, is the story of New England's season, one that at the midpoint has them 6-2 for the fifth time in franchise history and leading the AFC East heading into Denver a week from tonight. Getting the job done in yesterday's 9-3 win was Kevin Faulk, who contributed 154 yards from scrimmage, a career-high 96 rushing. Putting in work was second-year tight end Daniel Graham with seven catches for 110 yards, easily the best game of his career. Owed time and a half is a New England defense that allowed Cleveland to reach midfield twice and has allowed one touchdown in its last three games. Earning his check was Mike Vrabel with a career-high three sacks and a forced fumble against the team he grew up supporting. Employee of the day: Special teams coach Brad Seely, whose unit accounted for all the Patriots' points and downed four Ken Walter punts inside the 20.
There are some concerns on this week's evaluation, namely the offense's struggles in the red zone (0 for 3) and on third down (4 for 14). But the crew won its fourth in a row and sixth in seven. Boss Belichick is pleased.
"That was really about the way we expected that game to go," Bill Belichick said of his second win in three tries against his former team, this one not a done deal until Ty Law intercepted Holcomb with less than a minute to go. "Cleveland is a team that has been in a lot of close games. That's usually what it comes down to and that's certainly what it came down to today -- last possession of the game."
Only because the Patriots made the same mistake the Dolphins did last week. They let the visitors hang around too long.
Tom Brady and Bethel Johnson collaborated on a 45-yard pass to Cleveland's 6 on the Patriots' first play from scrimmage. But Brady threw to the back of the end zone to nobody on the next play, and he did it while still in the pocket. That 10-yard penalty for intentional grounding put New England in second-and-long and it eventually settled for Adam Vinatieri's 27-yard field goal.
That was Blown Opportunity No. 1.
Second possession, second quarter. Brady took a sack on third and 8 from Cleveland's 19, Vinatieri booted a 43-yard field goal and the Patriots led . . . wait. Dan Koppen committed a false start. No play. Vinatieri's ensuing 48-yard attempt was wide left.
That was Blown Opportunity No. 2. And it allowed the Browns, on former practice-squad Patriot Phil Dawson's 29-yard field goal, to go into halftime tied at 3.
New England's third chance at closing up shop came in the third quarter, when a 70-yard drive stalled at the Browns' 10, wasting a 38-yard completion from Brady to Graham and runs of 5, 14, and 7 yards by Faulk. Vinatieri was good from 28. Patriots 6, Cleveland 3, and why -- despite the Browns crossing the 50 once to this point -- was this still a game?
"Some of these weeks we're going to need to score a lot more points than we did," acknowledged Brady, who got the offense to the doorstep of the red zone (the 20) late in the fourth quarter before looking to Vinatieri to salvage 3 from 38. "We had some opportunities, but we really just didn't take advantage. At some point, that's going to bite you in the butt."
The defense, sparked by the return of Law and Willie McGinest and a career game by Akron, Ohio, native and former Ohio State standout Vrabel, saved the Patriots' rears by forcing punts on eight of Cleveland's 10 possessions and allowing only three of 14 third downs to be converted. The Browns employed a lot of three-receiver sets yet managed only 119 passing yards. The Patriots sacked Couch once and Holcomb thrice, and made the poor guy run around on those bad legs more than he would have liked.
"We put a lot into this game," Vrabel said. "We knew how important it was and what time in the season we were at where you could start to go one way or another. We knew it was important, with the schedule we had coming up. We needed to win this football game."
"We played a tough game, a physical game and just were able to keep the edge," Matt Light said. "It's not always going to be pretty out there. Those guys get paid to play, too."
But it was New England's guys who really earned their money yesterday. So much so that Boss Belichick gave them today off.