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.
Tedy: That's right; this is also getting to the time of year where you are starting to understand your playoff position and who you are in competition with -- the Broncos, Chiefs, Colts and Bengals. You still have a chance of getting the No. 1 seed, you want the road to go through New England, and there are four games left. You at least want it to go through New England on that first divisional weekend and that would always heighten our focus when I was playing. That's one less round you have to survive. So there shouldn't be any more letdowns. You want to go out and start fast against a struggling Cleveland team to solidify your No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
Mike: This Browns team has been interesting to me all year, in part because I thought they could be a surprise club. The new regime has talked a lot about building a team that can sustain, much like the Patriots have in 14 seasons under Bill Belichick. So that has led to some decisions -- such as trading draft picks into next year, and top running back Trent Richardson for a 2014 first-round draft choice -- that prioritize the long-term picture over the short-term. That can create other challenges.
Tedy: The minute I saw the Trent Richardson trade, I was thinking how I would feel if I was a player in that locker room, and how discouraged I would be that a year of my career is being thrown away for future considerations. You can sugarcoat it any way you want, but Richardson was one of their best offensive players. When that happens, you have to dig deep inside and decide how hard you want to play, basically for yourself. You start thinking about your contract situation. You start watching your coaches a little more closely; are they coaching as hard as I think they should be coaching even though they're stockpiling draft picks for the future? You start watching other players to see if they are still motivated to play this season. This is a thought process a professional player does not want to have to deal with, but it's so obvious that you have to think about it. Your mind plays tricks on you with your motivation for playing. The motivation for playing should always be about winning a football game and you should feel like your organization, your owner, your head coach, is focused on the same thing. But the message was sent that it's not about winning a game, it's about preparing for the future.
Mike: It's interesting because, from a management and team-building standpoint, I could see a strong case could also be made that the Richardson trade was actually a good one. It's not like their offense was doing much with him either and Richardson has also struggled with the Colts. It's a good one to dissect and analyze. Overall, I'm sort of a believer in the Browns' long-range vision, although I did think they'd be further along at this point. What do you see from their offense?
Tedy: We don't know who is going to be the quarterback at this time, but this offense with coordinator Norv Turner, you have to think of the old Cowboys teams when Turner was coaching and Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek were big parts of the passing game. Also, you think of the Chargers' offenses with Phillip Rivers, Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates. This is just a scaled-down version with less talent in Cleveland. Whether the quarterback is Brandon Weeden or Jason Campbell, you know where the quarterback is going to be -- on the spot -- and they are going to want these receivers such as Josh Gordon to run those deep out-breaking and in-breaking routes, with shots down the field. Turner is going to want a strong quarterback in there to sit in the pocket and deliver the ball down the field just like Aikman and Rivers, but with quarterbacks who just aren't as good. If you remember some of the games the Patriots had against the Chargers, when they were focused on taking away that big No. 1 receiver, and in the red area you especially focus on that tight end and not letting him have success down there, these are some of the focal points that Coach Belichick will focus on.
Mike: For the second week in a row, the Patriots face a team coming off a loss to the Jaguars. Any sense of how Belichick might approach that with players?
Tedy: When you're going up against a team offensively that is obviously struggling -- bottom of the league in points per game, third-down conversions, tied for 25th in turnovers and with questions at quarterback -- Coach Belichick will often focus on the individual talent of some players. He'll highlight Josh Gordon this week. He'll highlight Jordan Cameron this week. He'll talk up Joe Thomas, the left tackle. He'll try to motivate whoever is going up against Joe Thomas, whether it's Rob Ninkovich or Chandler Jones, and want them to be on their game because Thomas is one of the better tackles in the league. Alex Mack has played well at center for them. So he'll highlight those types of individual players and try to get his players motivated that way.
Mike: Let's focus a little more on Gordon, who initially entered the NFL in the supplemental draft and has been putting up big numbers. Cornerback Aqib Talib mentioned him in the same sentence as Calvin Johnson this week.
Tedy: He's 6-foot-2, 225 pounds and the production he has had the past few weeks has been impressive. That's something that opens your eyes. This is a jump-ball alert week for the Patriots, because he can go up and get it. You also see him with a 95-yard catch-and-run touchdown on a hook route, where the defender doesn't make the tackle and he was out of the gates. He's obviously not Calvin Johnson but he's hot right now and that's what you have to respect.
Mike: They've struggled to run it, which ties in to what we were talking about with Richardson.
Tedy: Yes, Willis McGahee is a running back that has run hard and I think a lot of these players respect him and the player he is. He's also a scaled-down version of himself. He isn't what he used to be, but he still runs hard in between the tackles.
Mike: From a Patriots perspective, one of the interesting parts about the Browns was what quarterback Brian Hoyer did early in the year, leading them to two wins before tearing his ACL on Oct. 3. What did you see from Hoyer?
Tedy: He gave them a spark, which they needed after the Trent Richardson trade. It almost made them forget about that trade -- a homegrown kid, playing great, and then in that Thursday night game when he went for the slide, Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso came over the top, and he tore his knee up, I think that might have been it for this team. But I was really happy for Hoyer and what he was able to do. You could always see when he was here that he could be something. Of course, he was never going to get his chance with Tom Brady being the quarterback. That looked like the perfect situation for him. It's going to be interesting to see what they do with Hoyer next year too. Obviously, Brandon Weeden isn't the answer. Jason Campbell is a stop-gap in between finding their guy. Let's say they draft a quarterback next year, a young guy to groom, there's still a Brian Hoyer there winning football games for them. It could be a dilemma.
Mike: Defensively, this team should be better. Let's get in to what they are, and who some of their key players are.
Tedy: On paper, this is my 30th-ranked defense in the index. The best ranking they have is points per game, where they are 21st. They're struggling defensively. They have some players who are solid. I've seen defensive tackle Phil Taylor dominate this year. I've seen him be stout against the run, press blockers, make tackles in the backfield. I've seen him have the ability to pursue the ball down the line of scrimmage and make a tackle outside the numbers, which for a big man his size is impressive. I've seen him show awareness on screen passes where instead of rushing up field he reads it and makes the play (e.g. versus Chiefs, Week 8, second quarter, 3:45). He's a guy to watch because coming out of Baylor there was talk he'd be the next dominant defensive lineman. He has been buried in Cleveland, so you don't always hear about him, but I've seen flashes of brilliance.
Mike: What about the top pick, Barkevious Mingo?
Tedy: I think he's a project. At LSU, he was a defensive end with his hand in the dirt. He shows a lot of athletic ability and they have him playing outside linebacker. I saw him struggling to set the edge in the running game early in the year. He's probably a kid who needs to develop some more strength, as he's very raw. He has made some plays. Paul Kruger, another outside linebacker, came over from the Baltimore Ravens. He's a tough guy and edge-setter who can get after the passer. Jabaal Sheard has done well for them and D'Qwell Jackson is a solid inside linebacker. Then you have defensive backs T.J. Ward (safety) and Joe Haden (cornerback). So they have some ability but they're just not playing well as a unit. It's very similar to the Houston Texans last week. You recognize individual talent but you look at their performance as a unit and they're not getting the job done.
Mike: This is a similar scheme to what the Patriots saw last season with the Arizona Cardinals and it gave them some problems. The coordinator is Ray Horton, who also led the Cardinals' D last year.
Tedy: Horton also has a background with the Steelers and this is an aggressive 3-4 system. It's not an old-school Patriots 3-4 type system. They're not going to use the two-gap on a down-to-down basis. They use some elements of a one-gap system in this scheme. It's like the Steelers and how they've used their linebackers, with James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons. And in Arizona, how you saw Karlos Dansby being used, and Daryl Washington. Also, with cornerbacks, you see them being used to lock a certain guy down and implement more pressure. In Pittsburgh it was Ike Taylor. In Arizona, it was Patrick Peterson. Here, in Cleveland, it's Joe Haden. And with safety T.J. Ward, he shows up in the box a lot; it's not necessarily the Troy Polamalu role or the Adrian Wilson role, but he makes a lot of tackles against the run.
Mike: Some believe Haden is one of the best corners in the NFL.
Tedy: Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts gave Haden problems last week as Haden was beaten by a double move for the game-winner. Haden has probably expressed the most frustration this year about being on a team that has continued to lose his entire career. He wants to win so badly and he's played well in the league. I've seen him shut down A.J. Green at times in Browns-Bengals matchups. He's an outstanding player who garners respect around the league, but once again, when you play for a losing team like the Browns, you're not going to get a lot of attention.
Mike: We touched on the mentality and mindset the Patriots might stress heading into this game. If you're Browns coach Rob Chudzinski, what is the approach?
Tedy: When a team that has hit some hard times enters a game like this, the idea is that you can open some eyes if you get this victory. I'm sure that's what Rob Chudzinski is saying to these guys -- this is their Super Bowl. You have Chicago, the Jets and the Steelers on their remaining schedule, but if you win any of those, it won't produce the same attention of going into New England and beating Tom Brady and the Patriots. That's a little extra motivation, just as it was for the Texans last week. I think the biggest thing for the Patriots is that you did what you had to do last week -- beat the teams you're supposed to beat any way you can at this time of year. It doesn't have to be impressive. You know you're going to be in the tournament at the end of the year, so beat the teams you're supposed to beat and move on to the next week. Right now, it's all about getting that seed solidified. If you have to survive certain games, like last week, so be it. Just make sure you get the W.
Mike: The offense keeps clicking as the Browns, with a haul of 2014 draft picks to continue to build a core, start looking toward next year. Patriots 30, Browns 13.
Tedy: The hottest player in the NFL right now, Josh Gordon, should have another big day, but it won't be enough. Patriots 38, Browns 28.