The Patriots and Browns haven't squared off since the 2010 regular season, but there a number of connections between the franchises that make Cleveland a familiar foe. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick once was the head coach of the Browns, and his right-hand personnel aide, Mike Lombardi, recently was rehired by the franchise to serve as the general manager. He's part of a brain trust charged with rebuilding the franchise that has struggled through recent seasons.
Perhaps the biggest question mark on the Browns roster is whether 2012 first-round pick Brandon Weeden is the solution at quarterback. If it turns out he's not, the Browns signed a pair of veteran signal-callers this offseason, including former Patriot Brian Hoyer. Hoyer, who bounced around the league after being released by New England following last training camp, agreed to terms on a two-year deal and may have a chance to compete for either the starting or top backup job.
Outside of the quarterback position, the Browns have a solid roster led by an impressive defensive front seven that will be run by highly regarded defensive coordinator Ray Horton. The Browns paid big to lure Horton from Arizona, making him one of the higher-paid assistants in the NFL.
Let's dig deeper into a challenge the Patriots will face on either side of the football against the Browns.
Offense: The Browns not only hired an offensive-minded head coach in Rob Chudzinski, they also brought in former Chargers head coach Norv Turner to serve as the offensive coordinator. Turner has a strong track record as a coordinator and is a talented playcaller who has a pension for pushing the football down the field through the deep passing game. With an excitable young receiver in Josh Gordon who has the speed to take the top off of a defense, the Patriots likely will be tested by the vertical passing game. Travis Benjamin doesn't have the same size as Gordon, but his sensational speed makes him a potential deep target down the field as well. Much like the Patriots focused on containing the Ravens' vertical passing game in the AFC championship game, they'll likely do the same against the Browns.
Defense: The name Ray Horton may be familiar to Patriots fans, as he was the coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals in 2012 and made comments to the effect that he was able to detect whether the Patriots were going to run a passing or running play prior to the snap, which put his defense at an advantage in a 20-18 Week 2 win. Regardless of whether that actually was the case, Horton is a strong defensive coordinator who runs an aggressive, pressure-heavy scheme. The Browns loaded up on pass rushers this offseason, signing free agent Paul Kruger and drafting Barkevious Mingo sixth overall. Horton doesn't just bring conventional pressure: He comes from the Steelers' school of defense and will overload, zone blitz and find various ways to deceive quarterbacks pre-snap. Couple the new additions with an already promising young front seven, and Cleveland looks to have the personnel and scheme to be a disruptive defense in 2013.