Having won three games in a row, the New England Patriots suddenly find themselves very much in the hunt for one of the seven playoff seeds in the AFC. Currently owning the final wild card spot, the team is among the hottest in football right now and very much establishing itself as one to watch in the conference.
In order to keep putting themselves in the best possible position to make a postseason run, however, the Patriots will need to keep stacking wins together. Their next opportunity to do that, however, will certainly be a challenging one: New England will welcome the 5-4 Cleveland Browns to Gillette Stadium on Sunday — a game that could have major playoff implications when all is said and done.
Both teams are facing some questions heading into the contest as a quick look at Thursday’s injury report shows, but the contest projects to be a close one nonetheless. And in order for the Patriots to come away victoriously, the following players will be massively important.
OT Isaiah Wynn
After starting slowly into his 2021 campaign and later also spending time on the Covid-19 reserve list, Isaiah Wynn has hit his stride as of late. He still has the occasional breakdown — he was flagged for holding twice the last two weeks, for example — but he has begun to play some much-improved football since his return to the starting lineup in Week 8.
On Sunday, the Patriots will need him to play his best game of the season. Wynn, after all, will go up against none other than the NFL’s sack leader: Myles Garrett has registered 12 quarterback takedowns in nine games so far this year, and has proven himself a serious contender for the Defensive Player of the Year title.
Wynn will have his hands full facing the former first overall draft pick, and him standing his ground would go a long way towards New England successfully moving the football both through the air and on the ground. To accomplish that, he likely will get his fair share of help — leaving him one-on-one against Garrett throughout the game is asking for trouble — but he still needs to execute regardless of the situation and assistance provided by either the tight ends or left guard Ted Karras.
Of course, Garrett’s outlook for Sunday is uncertain. The 25-year-old has missed two straight practices with a foot injury. Him being out or at the very least limited would tilt the scales in New England’s favor.
DT Christian Barmore
Nine weeks into his rookie season, Christian Barmore continues to look like a steal for the Patriots. The second-round draft pick has taken over a prominent role along the team’s defensive line, and has been a disruptive force even if the stat sheet does not always reflect it.
This week, however, Barmore will face arguably the toughest test of his young career. Going up against a Cleveland offensive line that is among the best in the game, he will need to bring his A-game in order to have the same impact he had the last few weeks
Likewise, him continuing to play some impressive football even against the likes of Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter and Wyatt Teller would show once again that the league made a mistake allowing the Alabama product to fall into Bill Belichick’s hands at No. 38.
S Adrian Phillips and S Kyle Dugger
With Odell Beckham Jr. now in Los Angeles, the Patriots have one fewer receiving weapon to worry about. That said, the Browns still roster plenty of talent on the offensive side of the ball — especially at the tight end position as head coach Bill Belichick pointed out during a press conference on Thursday.
“Tight ends do a good job. All of them,” he said about the group. “They use all three tight ends and a fullback and 11-personnel, so they kind of run wherever they can attack you, wherever you don’t match up well with them, and they’ll exploit that.”
David Njoku, Austin Hooper and Harrison Bryant have played a key role in helping Cleveland’s rushing attack become the most productive in the game. The trio has also combined to catch 52 passes for 667 yards and three touchdowns so far this season; Njoku and Hooper are ranked first and second on the team in receptions.
Slowing the group down will be a collective effort, but two players in particular stand out: safeties Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger. The two have played some quality football this season while filling versatile roles in the New England secondary; on Sunday, they have to make sure that Njoku and Hooper in particular are taken away as quarterback Baker Mayfield’s go-to targets in the passing game.
RB Brandon Bolden
With Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson still in the league’s concussion protocol as of Friday morning, the Patriots’ running back group might look drastically different in Week 10. Regardless of whether or not the two are ultimately cleared to return, the team might opt to rely on the most experienced member of the group: Brandon Bolden, who was the lone healthy running back on the game day roster by the end of last week’s game.
Bolden has played an important role for New England’s offense this season, filling the receiving back role previously held by James White but also carrying the football on occasion. If Harris and/or Stevenson are out or limited in any way, the veteran could again hear his number called quite frequently.