The Patriots can capture their fifth consecutive AFC East division title with a win against Cleveland and a Dolphins loss to the Steelers. They can also qualify for the playoffs by beating the Browns and having the Ravens lose to Minnesota.
But the Cleveland Browns stand in the way, and though the team’s record suggests a struggling season (they’re just 4-8), we saw last Sunday that the disparity in talent across the NFL is much narrower than records often suggest, as the then 2-9 Texans gave the Patriots all that they could handle.
And with that in mind, here’s the five things we’ll be watching for as the Patriots host the Browns this Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
1. First half efficiency. One of the themes of the week in talking to Patriots players has been the need to start faster against Cleveland. In the past two weeks, the Patriots have trailed by an average of 17 points at halftime. Though those leads have not proved insurmountable -- they’ve overcome each of them -- the Patriots fully understand they cannot sustain this pattern of slow starts and expect to win every week. Pinpointing specifically what has gone wrong has not been easy, as the consensus appears to be that the Patriots simply need to execute better and avoid first-half turnovers.
2. Return of Ridley? After sitting out last week because of fumbling issues, will running back Stevan Ridley be back in the mix? That’s one of the biggest questions surrounding this Sunday, as the third-year back continues to be a player of note. The Patriots were able to run the ball effectively enough to win in Ridley’s absence last Sunday, but he’s their most talented rusher and a potential game-changer. If he sits again, one could wonder if he’ll become part of the running back rotation at any point this season, barring an injury. If he returns, how much will he be utilized?
4. Run defense. Injuries have dramatically impacted the Patriots’ ability to stop the run, as they’ve slid down to 31st in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing more than 138 yards per game. The Broncos and Texans each had their way on the ground against the Patriots, and they’ll need to tighten the clamps this Sunday against Cleveland. If there was ever an opponent to help the team get back on track, the Browns are one of the candidates, as they rank fifth-worst in the NFL at just 82.3 rushing yards per game, including just 3.7 yards per carry. They have a rotation of backs that includes veteran Willis McGahee and capable pass-catcher Chris Ogbonnaya. The Patriots must slow whoever takes the lead role on Sunday.
5. Keeping Brady upright. New Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton has roots with the Pittsburgh Steelers and a pressure-oriented front that he brought with him to both Arizona and now Cleveland. While serving as the Cardinals' coordinator in 2012, Horton schemed up perhaps the best game plane to slow down the Patriots that they saw all season, as Brady was sacked four times (he was sacked just 23 times in the other 15 games) and the Patriots were held to a season-low 18 points. The personnel is different in Cleveland, but Horton has some of the same elements at his disposal, and finding a way to slow down this attack much more effectively than they did a season ago will be critical for the Patriots on Sunday.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- New England Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard wrapped up two days of court hearings in Nebraska on Friday by getting a drunken-driving charge against him dismissed as part of a plea deal.
In an agreement with the Lincoln city attorney's office, Dennard pleaded no contest to refusing to submit to a chemical test in exchange for having the DUI case dismissed. He was fined $500 and placed on probation.
His probation runs concurrently with, and until the end of, the three years of probation he's already serving for hitting a police officer in a separate case.
Assistant prosecutor Christine Loseke, who represented the city attorney's office during the hearing in Lancaster County Court, said the DUI and refusal to submit charges carry the same penalty. She said it's common for people charged with one to have the other dismissed. She said the DUI charge can be reinstated if Dennard breaks the law again.
The plea agreement was made by chief city prosecutor John McQuinn, Loseke said.
Dennard declined to comment outside the courtroom.
The 24-year-old Dennard played college football at Nebraska and was projected to be a middle-round NFL draft pick in 2012. But a few days before the draft, he was arrested in downtown Lincoln for hitting a police officer outside a bar.
Dennard, who ultimately dropped to the seventh round of the draft, was sentenced in that case to two years of probation, 30 days in jail and 100 hours of community service.
In July, he was arrested on suspicion of DUI in Lincoln and for failure to cooperate when an officer tried to get him to blow into a device that measures blood-alcohol content. A partial reading of the device showed his blood-alcohol content to be over the legal limit.
With Dobson out, the Patriots might turn to veteran receiver Austin Collie, who was re-signed this week. In addition to Dobson, fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) is questionable and practicing on a limited basis this week.
Veteran Will Svitek is expected to earn his second consecutive start in Cannon's place. He's the third player to man the right side of the line for the Patriots this season, as season-opening starter Sebastian Vollmer was previously placed on injured reserve.
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (knee), who practiced Wednesday but was absent on Thursday and Friday to appear in court in Lincoln, Neb., for hearings relating to previous arrests, is among those players listed as questionable.
Top cornerback Aqib Talib (hip), as well as cornerbacks Kyle Arrington (groin) and Marquice Cole (shin) are also questionable.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes, who missed Wednesday's practice due to a non-injury issue, is questionable with a knee injury.
The Patriots can clinch their fifth straight division crown Sunday with a win and a Dolphins loss.
What stood out from last Sunday's win against the Texans was that the team didn't go to its regular sub defense often (14 of 59 snaps).
Instead of adding a fifth defensive back against all three-receiver packages, the Patriots sometimes subbed out a safety (Duron Harmon/Steve Gregory) in favor of a third cornerback (Kyle Arrington). So while they technically remained in a base defense with four players in the secondary, it had a sub-package element to it.
We previously saw the Patriots use that package against the Buccaneers on Sept. 22 and it highlights some coaching creativity as they tailor a plan to each specific matchup.
That plan contributed to one of the highest percentages of "base" defense the Patriots have played this season (76.2 percent). The season average, entering the game, was 29.6 percent in base.
Overall, here are the numbers for the season (includes penalties):
Sub defense: 573 of 874 snaps (65.5 percent)
Base defense: 286 of 874 snaps (32.7 percent)
Short-yardage: 15 of 874 snaps (1.7 percent)
That's what happened last Sunday in Houston when the Patriots ran 32 of their 70 snaps with two or more tight ends on the field. That's 45.7 percent of the snaps, compared to their pre-Week 13 season average of 21.5 percent.
Furthermore, the Patriots ran 29 of their 70 snaps with two backs on the field. That's 41.4 percent of the snaps, compared to their pre-Week 13 season average of 20.2 percent.
This is the sign of a good, and evolving offense, as those were the matchups that the Patriots felt gave them the best chance to win. The Texans mostly matched those groupings with base personnel and the Patriots obviously liked the matchup throwing against it, which sparked a second-half comeback.
When Bill Belichick talks about in-game adjustments, this is a big part of what he is often referencing.
What resulted last Sunday was a season-low in the three-receiver package, with 17 of 70 snaps (24.2 percent). Compare that to the season average of 56.5 percent of the snaps entering Week 13 and the picture comes into sharper focus. A second-quarter injury to receiver Kenbrell Thompkins might have also forced the team's hand a bit.
On the season, here is a simplified breakdown of the team's 895 offensive snaps (including penalties, not kneel-downs):
3 or more WRs: 523 of 895
2 or more TEs: 225 of 895
2 backs: 210 of 895
There is a 63-play overlap, which accounts for snaps in which there was a combination of 3 WRs/2 backs and 2-3 TEs/2 backs.
Campbell was cleared to play and was a full participant in practice. He had been limited on Thursday. He suffered a concussion Nov. 24 during a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It was tough to sit out," Campbell said. "I thought it was important to get back playing, but at the same time there's life after football, so I wanted to make sure that part was handled correctly before I got back on the field."
Chudzinski said the Browns will decide on the backup when the coaching staff meets Friday and would announce the decision on game day.
"Whatever happens during the game, we have to be ready for," Chudzinski said. "That's part of this league."
He's now joined by defensive tackle Marcus Forston and offensive lineman Braxton Cave, who are also being paid the increased rate of $10,000 per week.
Forston has played in three games this season, registering three total tackles. He was recently waived from the active roster and re-signed to the practice squad. He's bounced back and forth between the active roster and practice squad since being signed as an undrafted free agent out of Miami following the 2012 draft.
Cave, meanwhile, was originally claimed off of waivers from the Cleveland Browns and has been on the practice squad since Sept. 7.
Upping the salary of a practice squad player is often a reflection of how the team values the player, and sometimes is motivated by other teams around the league that have interest in signing said player to their active roster. Teams will up the salary of their practice squadders to encourage them to stay put as opposed to departing for another organization; it's up to the player to decide what he wishes to do.
With the regular season winding down, some of the teams that are near the bottom of the standings and with an eye towards the future will attempt to sign practice squad players as developmental prospects to work with both at the end of this season and into the offseason.
The Patriots dressed three running backs for last Sunday's win against the Texans -- Shane Vereen (41 of 70 snaps), LeGarrette Blount (20 snaps) and Bolden (9) -- which left Ridley on the sidelines. Since that decision, one of the top storylines surrounding the team is if Ridley will continue to be a healthy scratch, or if he might re-emerge in some form. Bolden's status could have a direct impact on the answer.
The other area of note that caught the eye at practice was seeing fill-in starting right tackle Will Svitek's right ankle heavily taped. Svitek landed on the injury report Wednesday, leaving the Patriots vulnerable at tackle because starter Sebastian Vollmer (leg) is on season-ending injured reserve and top backup Marcus Cannon (ankle) remains out of practice.
Also with receiver Aaron Dobson (foot) not practicing, it essentially rules him out Sunday for the second straight game.
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard wasn't present for the second day in a row as he is due in court for a second day in Nebraska.
“Of that group, I think the team that has improved the most from the first day of preseason until today is New England, and I would tell you that I believe Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are having among the best year they’ve ever had in the NFL. Those young receivers, I don’t think there’s as much talent in New England as they’ve had in some other years. I don’t think they’re good enough to win a Super Bowl, but I think they’re doing a great job, on a weekly basis, of winning football games.”
When it comes to Belichick’s coaching job, this rivals 2008 when the Patriots lost Brady on the 15th offensive play of the season and still finished 11-5. Other could also point to the 2001 season, Belichick’s second in New England, as one of his best.
Specific to Brady, this season has mirrored 2006 when he was asked to do more with less. That was the opposite end of the spectrum from his record-setting 2007 season, which is hard to top.
About six weeks ago, some were wondering if Father Time had caught up to Brady.
Those thoughts, as Mayock’s comments reminded us, are no longer part of the discussion.
This week, we examine not only current Browns with Patriots ties, but also the strong ties between the Patriots coaching staff and the Browns.
BROWNS TIES TO THE PATRIOTS
Quarterback Brian Hoyer. Now on injured reserve, the former undrafted free agent turned backup to Tom Brady earned his chance to be a starter for the Browns earlier this season, playing well in leading the team to three wins in three starts. Hoyer suffered a torn ACL, however, shelving him for the balance of 2013.
Senior pro scout Frank Edgerly. Edgerly broke into the NFL with the Patriots from 2009-12 after spending 10 years as the head coach at Red Bank Catholic high school in New Jersey. He started off as a pro scout for the 2009 season before transitioning to an area scout role for his final three years with the Patriots.
PATRIOTS TIES TO THE BROWNS
Head coach Bill Belichick. Belichick, who called his time with the Browns “important years” of his life, was the head coach from 1991-95, his first head coaching experience. Belichick took the team to the playoffs one time during those five seasons, advancing to the divisional round.
Director of football research Ernie Adams. Adams, among Belichick’s most trusted assistants, was a member of the Browns staff from 1991-95 as an offensive assistant. He rejoined Belichick when he took the Patriots job after working on Wall Street in an investment business.
Linebackers coach Pepper Johnson. A former player under Belichick, Johnson spent four seasons with the Browns from 1993-96. A popular and respected linebacker, Johnson has developed into one of the more respected assistant coaches in football.
Special-teams coach Scotty O’Brien. O’Brien, like Adams, served on Belichick’s staff from 1991-95 as the special-teams coach. After stints with the Panthers, Dolphins and Broncos, he reunited with Belichick in New England.
Assistant coach Brian Daboll. When the Browns hired former Patriots defensive coordinator Eric Mangini as their head coach in 2009 (after a stint as the Jets head coach), Daboll was hired as the offensive coordinator, a role he filled for two seasons. Daboll later served as the offensive coordinator for both Miami and Kansas City before returning to New England in January.
Every week leading into the New England Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's a Sunday home game against the Cleveland Browns (CBS, 1 p.m. ET):
Mike: The Patriots are heavy favorites in this game, as they should be when playing at home against a four-win team. Then again, few probably thought last week's road game with the Texans would be close.
Tedy: That is a great learning experience for this team not to take anyone lightly. You don't want to get in an early hole anymore. I think that's one message to be sent this week -- you got down 17-7 to a team that had lost nine in a row at the time, and had to rally to win the game. This week, it helps to be at home. I'm sure that's a major emphasis point this week -- you want to dominate at home and I think that will prevent them from having a letdown.
Mike: And it's not like they don't have areas to improve and reasons to keep the focus sharpened.
Rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson (foot) and starting right tackle Marcus Cannon (ankle) were also missing, the second straight day they have been out. Neither has practiced since suffering injuries in Week 12 against the Broncos.
Rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) was among those players listed as limited, and with Dobson missing time, the Patriots added insurance in the form of veteran Austin Collie, who was re-signed Thursday morning and on the practice field.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes, who missed practice on Wednesday due to a non-injury issue, returned to practice Thursday, though he was limited as he continues to deal with a knee injury.
As was the case on Wednesday, cornerbacks Aqib Talib (hip), Kyle Arrington (groin) and Marquice Cole (shin) were limited.