The most difficult part of the New England Patriots schedule is out of the way, and now, they prepare to take on their second straight opponent with a losing record -- the Cleveland Browns.
The quarterback search has been going on for a decade and a half, spawning one of the most infamous custom jerseys in all of sports. Three different quarterbacks have started for the Browns this year as a result of injuries to Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell. The carousel has spun, figuratively and literally, with Weeden and Campbell trading places over the past few weeks.
As a result of the shaky quarterback situation -- and a few other factors, to boot -- the Browns field one of the league's worst offenses.
Don't be surprised, though, if Patriots coach Bill Belichick is prepared at his Wednesday press conference with more than one stat that will indicate just how well the Browns are capable of playing.
Here's an early look at the Browns.
How they got here: What started off as an up-and-down season for the Browns has devolved to mostly down. After leading the team to an 0-2 start, Weeden injured his thumb, ushering in the shortly-lived Hoyer era. The Browns won their next three games under the former Patriots backup, but their season has spun out of control since Hoyer was injured in Week 5 against the Buffalo Bills. Now, the Browns have one win in the past seven games, sandwiched between two three-game losing streaks. In this most recent three-game skid, they've turned the ball over 11 times. They held a 28-25 lead over the Jaguars, but Browns cornerback Joe Haden gave up the game-winning touchdown catch to Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts with 45 seconds remaining. The Browns are once again playing the role of a postseason spoiler.
Key cog, offense -- Josh Gordon, WR: Offensively, Gordon is one of a few building blocks for the Browns. For a 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, you'd think he would be a focal point in the red zone, but he hasn't been much of a red zone threat to this point, with just four catches on 11 targets and one touchdown inside the opponent's 20-yard line. He's not yet polished as a route-runner, but his long speed has helped him take the top off plenty of defenses this season; he leads the league with 19.5 yards per reception and 22 receptions of 20 yards or more. In registering 237 receiving yards against the Steelers and 261 against the Jaguars, Gordon has set the Browns record for receiving yards in a game in back-to-back weeks.
Key cog, defense -- T.J. Ward, SS: Drafted in the second round in 2010, Ward has developed into one of the better young safeties in the league. At 5-foot-10 and 211 pounds, Ward isn't the biggest safety around, but he is a heavy hitter and is around the football a lot, with a team-leading 62 solo tackles. He's played well in both man and zone coverage, and he allows a passer rating of just 56.8 into his coverage (one touchdown, two interceptions). He has also been effective when called on to blitz the quarterback, and has 1.5 sacks this season to show for it. He is one of the most versatile safeties in the NFL, and Tom Brady will have to make sure he knows where Ward is on every snap.
X factor -- Jordan Cameron, TE: Cameron is the big-bodied, athletic tight end that has given the Patriots problems in the past; he has rare athleticism for a 6-foot-4, 245-pound tight end. He started the season strong and logged 45 catches for 515 yards and six touchdowns in the first seven games, but he has just 18 catches for 189 yards in the past five games. He knows how to use his frame to win jump balls, and recorded all six of his touchdown catches in the red zone. Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins could see some time in coverage on him, but while starters Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes are not considered great coverage linebackers, but their size and strength could help them match up with Cameron, who is not unbearably quick.
Stats and notes:
- Notable injuries: As mentioned above, the Browns have been the walking wounded at quarterback. They already lost Hoyer for the season, but Weeden left Sunday's game against the Jaguars with a concussion, and Campbell missed the game with a concussion of his own. Aside from those three, the Browns have been relatively healthy, but they have already lost wide receivers Travis Benjamin and Armanti Edwards, linebacker Quentin Groves and running back Dion Lewis for the season.
- The Browns defense has been better than advertised this year; they currently rank third in both passing yards per attempt and rushing yards per attempt. They have also allowed just 28 pass plays of 20 yards or more, the fourth-fewest in the NFL. That's another tribute to Ward's impact at safety.
- Despite not allowing many big plays, the Browns have struggled in clutch situations. They rank 28th in defensive third down percentage, yielding conversions on 41.6 percent of third down tries; they are also the league's third-worst red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on 64.7 percent of opponent's possessions inside the 20-yard line.
- The Browns have struggled to put points on the board on a weekly basis, but their biggest struggles come in the second half of games; they're averaging 11.3 points per game in the first half, but just eight points per game in the second half.
- With a minus-nine ratio, the Browns rank 27th in the NFL in turnover margin; they are minus-6 over the past three games, all losses. They have lost the turnover battle in four of their five road games, and are 1-3 in those contests.
- Pat McManamon of ESPN writes that there's plenty of blame to go around for the Browns' 32-28 loss to the Jaguars.
- Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer writes that Browns fans are once again looking ahead to the NFL draft.
- Daryl Ruiter of 92.3 The Fan says that while the Browns don't believe in curses, they may want to rethink that stance.
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