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Patriots vs. Browns preview: 4 matchups that could decide Sunday’s game

Related: Dont’a Hightower has indeed been ‘a pleasant surprise’ for the Patriots defense this season

Divisional Round - Los Angeles Chargers v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Though they find themselves at similar points in their rebuilds, the New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns took very different paths to get to this point.

Cleveland, the laughing stock of the NFL for two decades, has just recently been able to put the right pieces in place to become a contender in the AFC. Over the course of the last five drafts, Cleveland has been able to compile a group of supremely talented players to lead them into a more successful era of Browns football. Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, Nick Chubb, and Jedrick Wills Jr. have become franchise cornerstones, and are surrounded by other ascending talents like Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Greg Newsome II, and Wyatt Teller to make up one of the most talented young cores in the NFL. Led by the Baker Mayfield —best quarterback they’ve seen in over two decades— Cleveland has finally straightened their path towards the top of the NFL.

New England is a very different, and much shorter story. After seeing Tom Brady ship down to Tampa Bay, the Patriots suffered their first losing season in 20 years. That is when Bill Belichick went nuclear, handing out nearly $160M in guaranteed money to a bevy of free agents, while immediately addressing their need at quarterback through the draft, and starting him in Week 1 over a veteran presence with experience in the system. Suddenly New England finds themselves back in the hunt for an AFC playoff spot, after their long 20 month absence.

Nevertheless, both teams sit at 5-4, and have had rough 2-4 stretches to counterbalance a 3 game winning streak. The Patriots come in with all of the momentum while Cleveland is reeling. With both teams needing this win, you don’t need to look far to find where it will come from. The matchups.

Isaiah Wynn vs. Myles Garrett

Despite what many on the bird app say, Isaiah Wynn isn’t the worst left tackle in football. In fact, he is far from it. After struggling mightily against the Dallas Cowboys, Wynn has turned in three straight solid performances, only giving up one sack and two quarterback pressures over that span. He is on an upward trajectory in terms of his on field play, a good thing considering he’s about to be tasked with blocking the current favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.

Myles Garrett is a problem. His 34 quarterback hurries and 12.0 sacks are good for 2nd and 1st in each respective category. He lines up over the last tackle on nearly 90% of the time, which means he’s rushing from the quarterbacks blind side and will have a heavy dose of Isaiah Wynn.

I probably don’t need to tell you why this matchup is so important so we’ll give you the SparkNotes version. The Patriots employ a rookie quarterback, who for all of his mental strengths, is still prone to make mistakes like holding on to the football. At some point, when that happens, Wynn will need to hold his ground and save Jones from Garrett, because if he doesn’t, the Browns star will make a game changing play.

Matthew Judon vs. Baker Mayfield

The dude with the red sleeves is pretty damn good.

Matthew Judon, New England’s high priced free agency signing has done everything and more this season to show why he deserved the money he got this past summer. More than just a pass rush specialist, Judon is the rock of the Patriots’ front-7 and the straw that stirs the drink in terms of juice on the defensive side of the ball.

His target this week is Baker Mayfield. The former first overall pick is a bit polarizing outside of Cleveland but has been nothing but solid, and puts the Browns in a position to win most ball games. At this point, that is grounds for a statue in Cleveland. Unfortunately for Mayfield and the Browns, his non-throwing shoulder is being held together by scotch tape and rubber bands, and has severely hindered his ability to create outside of the pocket or consistently throw the ball with accuracy. That is something that Judon and the Patriots can make him pay for.

Since the Browns running game is expected to be severely depleted on Sunday (more on that soon), Matt Judon should have more than a few opportunities to rattle Mayfield and the Browns passing game. With Mayfield confined to the pocket, getting home to him should be a tad easier for New England’s rush. If they can do that and force some rushed throws, we may see J.C. Jackson come down with one or two more interceptions on Sunday.

Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley vs. Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio

The Cleveland Browns’ identity lies within their run game. The combination of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt make for one of the NFL’s best 1-2 punches, while Demetric Felton and John Kelly have already become solid reserve players to fill in, in a pinch. Bad news for Cleveland fans, all four of them are doubtful for this game. Chubb, Felton, and Kelly all find themselves on the COVID list, and would need two negative tests 24-hours apart to be eligible for Sunday. Hunt is till on IR and will not return before Sunday.

That leaves D’Ernest Johnson; meaning the Browns run game must be toast. Right Patriots fans? Wrong.

Johnson went for 146 yards and two touchdowns in Week 7 against the Denver Broncos, thanks to herculean efforts by the Browns interior offensive line. Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio make for the best guard duo in football, and made D’Ernest Johnson look like Earl Campbell just three weeks ago. New England’s ‘trash man’ Dont’a Hightower and ‘thumper’ Ja’Whaun Bentley will be tasked with slowing down the Browns powerful duo. If anyone can do it, I believe this guy can.

Bill Belichick vs. Kevin Stefanski

It’s been a while since we highlighted a coaching matchup. This one shouldn’t take long.

Kevin Stefanski’s offenses have west coast roots. The proprietor of the West Coast Offense is the late great Bill Walsh, who Bill Belichick famously stifled using the greatest defensive game plan of all time during the 1990 NFC Championship game. He has since gone on to draw up some of his best game plans against the likes of Andy Reid, John Harbaugh, and Stefanski’s mentor Gary Kubiak, all descendants of the West Coast Offense.

With the Browns headed into this matchup running a similar system, but with limited options in terms of rushing and passing balance, it could end up being a long day for Kevin Stefanski’s boys.