Never had a chance
The way Tom Brady played the game of football Sunday against the Browns, one would never have guessed he had been away from the game for more than a month.
Not only did he dismantle the Cleveland secondary, he absolutely savaged it for 406 yards and three touchdowns, playing pitch and catch with tight ends Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski all afternoon.
To make matters worse for the Browns, the Patriots’ defense played to near shutdown capacity, completely shutting down the vaunted Cleveland running game (it sure seems strange to put those words together) and moving the Browns closer to a new starting quarterback next Sunday in Tennessee. More on that later.
The 33-13 final score in no way indicates how much the Patriots dominated this one in all phases of the game, sending the winless Browns to their fifth straight loss this season, eighth in a row overall extending to last season and 15th in the last 16 games. The only blemish was a 24-10 victory over San Francisco last December.
The biggest difference in this game was the Browns’ inability to at least hang with their opponent from a competitive standpoint as they had in the first four games this season. The Patriots came right out and punched the Browns in the snoot and did not let up.
Brady, who was 28-of-40 on the sunny Cleveland afternoon, came right out of the chute looking like a future Hall of Famer should despite his inactivity during a four-game suspension. It was as though he had played the Patriots’ first four games.
If there was any rust gathered during the layoff, it didn’t show. He must have liberally applied Rust-Oleum to his extremely valuable right arm during the suspension because it looked almost brand new against the Browns.
He was quick with his decisions, laser accurate with a majority of his throws and totally baffled the bewildered Cleveland defense, which seemed to disappear in the Patriots’ first three drives. They were there. The fans saw them.
Those first three possessions produced scoring drives of 80, 75 and 64 yards. None of those plays ended in negative yardage as the 39-year-old veteran calmly and devastatingly teased the Cleveland defense with pass plays that ran the gamut from screens to long bombs.
Each possession required eight plays and the latter two concluded with Brady tossing scoring passes to Bennett, the tight end the Pats acquired from the Chicago Bears to pair with Gronkowski. LeGarrette Blount scored from a yard out on the first. Bennett added his third score to open the third quarter on another eight-play drive, this one for 75 yards.
The Browns constructed a nine-play, 75-yard journey to the end zone after the first New England score, Andrews Hawkins hauling in Cody Kessler’s 11-yard heave. It was the rookie quarterback’s high for the day. The low came on the next possession and is likely to trigger a new starting quarterback, the club’s fourth in six games.
Kessler tied to hook up with Duke Johnson Jr. on a screen pass from his 10-yard line, but Pats linebacker Dont’a Hightower came clean on a delayed blitz up the middle and jolted Kessler’s arm as he was throwing. The ball traveled backward – it was ruled a fumble – and out of the end zone for a safety.
Hightower landed all 265 of his pounds on top of Kessler, who fell on his right shoulder. Early reports indicate his ribs and chest were injured and his status for the Titans game is uncertain.
That elevated Charlie Whitehurst, picked up a couple of weeks ago as insurance when Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown went down with significant injuries, to the top spot. But the veteran quarterback also went down with what looked like a hyperextended left knee while attempting a pass late in the fourth quarter.
Let’s see. That’s four injured quarterbacks in five games with 11 games still to be played. What in the world is going on here?
It’s bad enough the Browns have numerous problems in other areas, but the quarterbacks room could conceivably be empty this week when the Browns prep for Tennessee.
Whitehurst, who had directed the Browns on a seven-play, 80-yard scoring drive, (hitting 6-7 tight end Connor Hamlett with a 17-yard strike early in the fourth quarter), returned to take a knee in the final seconds of the game when the Patriots failed to completely run out the clock. It was his right one.
If Whitehurst’s left knee isn’t as bad as initially believed, he’ll be the man under center next Sunday and become the 27th different starting quarterback for the franchise since 1999. If it’s worse, Terrelle Pryor becomes No. 27 and the waiver wires will be burning in Berea.
Brady, meanwhile, sent a message to the rest of the National Football League with his slicing and dicing of the Cleveland secondary. He is back and seemed to relish his performance after Patriots coach Bill Belichick decided enough was enough and called it an afternoon for his star quarterback midway through the final quarter.
Nothing worked on defense for the Browns, who never really bothered Brady for the first three quarters. And it seemed they never bothered to check Bennett and Gronkowski, who combined for 11 catches, 176 yards and Bennett’s troika of touchdowns.
Gronkowski, who missed the first two games of the season with hamstring problems and played sparingly in the next two, was the full Gronk with his five catches and 109 yards. His first grab on New England’s first drive was vintage Gronk.
He made the catch at the Cleveland 25 and bowled over five defenders, turning a third-and-8 into a first down at the Browns’ 2-yard line. It was pure intimidation (or maybe poor tackling) as defenders bounced off the 6-6, 265-pounder.
Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton tried just about everything to harass Brady, but nothing worked because the quarterback still owns one of the quickest releases in the NFL. By the time the pass rush arrived in the backfield, the ball was gone.
Whether it was the variety of screens he used, or the short- to mid-range throws he employed against a zone defense, or the deep ball, such as the two to wide receiver Chris Hogan for 63 and 43 yards, Brady was firmly in control.
So, too, was the New England defense, especially against the Cleveland running game, which entered the game No. 1 in the NFL with nearly 150 yards a game. Constant domination of the line of scrimmage limited the Browns to 27 yards on 22 attempts.
The holes that have been there for Isaiah Crowell to run through this season never appeared. They showed up in the form of 320-pound Malcom Brown and/or 350-pound Alan Branch, a pair of massive defensive tackles who combined for just seven tackles, but helped plug gaps that heretofore had been there.
Crowell saw no daylight whatsoever in his 13 carries, which totaled 22 yards. The Pats' defensive line hammered the Cleveland offensive line all day long.
This was a thorough thrashing by one of the NFL’s best teams against, not even arguably anymore, the league’s worst team.
And Browns fans who attended the game, whether they realized it or not, witnessed (maybe for the last time) greatness by a quarterback who, this time arguably, might go down as the greatest ever to play the position.
On this afternoon, their team never had a chance.