By Gregory Hunt
Thanks to a pair of touchdown passes inside the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter, the New England Patriots overcame a 26-14 deficit to earn a 27-26 win over the Cleveland Browns at Gillette Stadium on Sunday. It was the third week in a row that the Patriots had come back to win after trailing by double digits. But on the down side, New England may have lost tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season due to a suspected ACL tear.
Offense Grade: C+
New England has become notorious for its slow-starting offense this season, and Sunday’s game did nothing to dispel that notion as the Patriots were shut out in the first half for the second time in their last three games. New England receivers dropped at least five balls in the first half and quarterback Tom Brady missed a pair of opportunities for big plays in the first quarter by overthrowing Gronkowski and Julian Edelman on deep passes.
Things finally got on track in the second half thanks to the play of running back Shane Vereen, who caught 12 passes for 153 yards, including a 50-yard reception in the third quarter. Vereen followed up that catch with a 16-yard reception and a six-yard touchdown run to account for every yard of a three-play, 72-yard scoring drive. Going forward, Vereen may become Brady’s favorite target, as Gronkowski was carted off the field after a hit by Cleveland safety T.J. Ward.
The New England running game was non-existent. Running backs LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley took most of the carries, and they combined for only 77 yards on 16 carries. That calculates to a respectable 4.8 yards per carry, but New England needed to abandon the running game after falling behind 19-3 in the third quarter. Brady ended up making 52 passing attempts and he was sacked four times.
Defense Grade: C-
The best spin you can put on the performance of the Patriots defense is that it kept New England in the game until the offense finally started putting points on the board. But ultimately, New England allowed Jason Campbell, a pedestrian quarterback recovering from a concussion, to throw for 391 yards and three touchdowns. Also, this unit failed to force a single turnover. The Patriots gave up a pair of turnovers of their own, forcing the entire team to work extra hard to earn the win.
The Patriots sacked Campbell only once and they allowed more than 100 yards rushing for the ninth consecutive game. Cornerback Aqib Talib did a pretty good job in the first half of containing red-hot wide receiver Josh Gordon, but in the third quarter Gordon beat Talib for an 80-yard touchdown reception. Gordon finished with seven catches for 151 yards.
Special Teams Grade: A-
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski wasn’t the touchback machine he normally is – only two of his six kickoffs went for touchbacks even though it wasn’t a particularly windy day – but his best kick of the day was a perfectly executed onside kick that traveled about nine yards before being muffed by Cleveland’s Fozzy Whittaker and recovered by New England cornerback Kyle Arrington. That play gave New England the chance to execute its game-winning drive. Gostkowski also made field goals of 33 and 50 yards.
Punter Ryan Allen put three of his five punts inside the Cleveland 20-yard line, so the Browns rarely started a drive in good field position. The New England return game was rather unspectacular, but it didn’t figure in the outcome of the game.
Coaching Grade: C-
The New England coaching staff is very adept at making halftime adjustments, but one riddle it can’t seem to solve is how to get the team off to faster starts on offense. This is leaving the team with very little margin of error, and this will eventually cost the team a game if it doesn’t get fixed. On defense, New England got very little pressure on Campbell, which allowed him to make some big plays in the second half. The Patriots didn’t blitz very often, but they weren’t very creative about it when they did, so Cleveland was able to pick up most of those blitzes easily.
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.