I admit that my first reaction to the Cleveland game last Sunday was: "we'll never win another game." Even late in the season when we face 0-14 Buffalo, I expected that Ryan Fitzpatrick would complete 36 of 37 passes against us and C.J. Spiller would carry 10 times for 250 yards as the Bills notched their first win. But, as always, things have settled down a bit and I've realized that just as the Patriots weren't quite as good as we'd like to think they were in racing off to a 6-1 start, there's also no way they are as bad as they looked last Sunday.
I see three scenarios for thinking about how the Cleveland game relates to the second half of the season. The first and most negative might be called the Patriots Were Exposed scenario. In this one, New England which had somehow been winning with smoke and mirrors was finally exposed as a team that can't run, can't pass straight, can't stop anybody, and can't even field kickoffs successfully. This scenario suggests that it was only a matter of time before New England was revealed as a sham and that the second half of the season will be filled with Cleveland-like games since the secret is now out about how to beat the Patriots.
Slightly less negative is what we might call the Just Like Last Year scenario in which the Browns game showed that the team is woefully inconsistent but slips into a pattern in which they lose to better teams and--mostly--beat lesser squads. That was pretty much the story of the 2009 Patriots and if the Cleveland game opens the door to that scenario, then expect losses to the Steelers, Colts, Jets,and Packers and wins over the Lions, Bears, Bills, and Dolphins. That would mean a 10-6 record--just like last year--only unlike last year, it almost certainly wouldn't be good enough for another AFC East title and probably not even a wildcard slot.
The final interpretation is the Bump in the Road scenario. This one sees the Cleveland game as just that: a bump in the road that nearly all good teams have sometimes in the parity-mad NFL where on "any given Sunday" (or Monday night or Thursday night and occasionally Saturday night) even good teams--like the 6-1 Patriots last week--just play a terrible game at the same time their opponent is jacked up and playing unbeatable football. In this scenario, last week's loss to Cleveland doesn't really predict this week's game with Pittsburgh or next week's with Indianapolis. It was simply a glitch. If the Patriots bounce back with a win Sunday night over the Steelers--or maybe even if they don't--this model suggests that Patriot fans shouldn't be too concerned with last week's loss. As unpleasant and decisive as it was, it was just one bad game. By itself, it is no more predictive of future failures thas the Baltimore, San Diego, Minnesota wins were predictive of success in Cleveland. Under the Bump in the Road scenario, the best thing we can all do is just move on, get ready for the Steelers, and not let that terrible game last week over-determine how the rest of the season will play out.
For my part, I subscribe to the Bump in the Road view. Whether our beloved Patriots win or lose, things are never as bad or as good as we might think in the immediate aftermath of the game.