The Browns game scares me. Truth be told, every game scares me because the NFL offers weekly evidence of just how little records and the standings mean. If San Diego and Minnesota were as bad as their records indicated, why did they push the Patriots to the wire? But the Patriots are catching the Browns at what seems like a bad time for us: Cleveland is coming off a bye week which means they've had lots of time to rest up, heal injuries, and devise a gameplan for the Patriots which will no doubt be full of surprise plays, formations, schemes, and sets. And their last game--a convincing victory against the Saints in New Orleans--should fill them with the confidence that they can play with anybody in this league. The Patriots, meanwhile, coming off three straight highly emotional games go on the road to face the 2-5 Browns in a classic trap game--Ravens, Chargers, Vikings just past, Steelers and Colts next up. All the signs point against the Patriots.
There's one more factor, too. Call it Old Home Week in Cleveland, or if you prefer, call it---hmm---familiarity breeds
contempt knowledge? Not only does this game involve Bill Belichick returning to the site of his first head coaching gig, it also pits New England against an opposing coaching staff that reeks of ties to the Patriots. Everyone knows about Eric Mangini's story. But go through the Browns coaching staff and what do you find? A whole staff with ties to the Belichick-era Patriots: offensive coordinator Brian Daboll (Pats assistant 2000-06 ), defensive coordinator Rob Ryan (Pats assistant 2000-03), special teams coach Brad Seely (Pats assistant 1999-2008), defensive line coach Bryan Cox (Pats player 2001), assistant strength and conditioning coach Rick Lyle (Pats player 2002-03).
The last time New England faced the Browns was 2007 when Romeo Crennel was the head coach and his staff included former Patriots assistants Randy Melvin and Cory Undlin. New England played the Browns in Week 5 that year and it was the closest game the Patriots had in their first eight. They won their first four games in 2007 by margins of 24, 24, 31, and 21 points. They won their next three by 21, 21, and 45 points. But in between they faced the Browns at home and led by just 27-17 late in the game when Randall Gay stripped the ball from a Browns player and raced in for an extra touchdown with just 42 seconds left to pad a 34-17 win in a game that was much closer and tougher than the score indicated.
It's not that Mangini's staff is going to have inside information on the 2010 Patriots. But what they will have in droves is knowledge of how New England scouts, how they prepare, how they practice and how they teach and coach certain techniques and positions. That should help them anticipate what they may see Sunday and give them a good sense of how New England is preparing this week. They will know not necessarily what the Patriots coaches are devising this week but how they're likely doing it, since so many Browns coaches have been in those Patriot staff meetings and tape sessions in the past where teams were scouted, weaknesses found, and gameplans assembled. Belichick may find it strange on Sunday to be in a situation where he has not only coached and trained all the coaches on his own staff but has also coached a lot of the coaches on the other staff, too. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in a league where every little thing might make a difference, the familiarity of the Cleveland coaches with the Belichick Way may be one of those small points that add up Sunday to something consequential. I'd bet anything that the Browns coaches circled this game on their calendar when the schedules were released. They'd love nothing more than to show their mentor how much they learned from him--and put that knowledge to use to beat him.
In the end, I think ultimately New England will win Sunday but I also think it will require, like the last several games, 60 minutes of football and I'd be surprised if the margin of victory is more than single digits. But a win is a win is a win--and notching another one Sunday in Cleveland would get the Flying Elvii to the mid-point of the season at 7-1.
And that should make all of us Pats Pulpiteers happy--and calm my own nerves for at least a few more days until the next game comes along to scare me.