After talking all week about the need to start the game quickly, the New England Patriots came out at home against the 4-8 Cleveland Browns and were outclassed on both sides of the ball early in the game. The Patriots were fortunate to only be down 6-0 at the half as quarterback Tom Brady was only 7 of 19 passing in the first half without completing a pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Plagued by drops, bad passes, and an inconsistent running game, the Patriots offense looked eerily similar to their early season struggles; however, this unit had most of their top weapons on the field and was still stymied by the Browns swarming and aggressive defense.
The Browns offense was determined to play keep away, trying to extend drives and run the ball and control the clock. The Patriots game plan all went to the wind in the second half when tight end Rob Gronkowski was injured at the end of a 21 yard reception when Cleveland safety T.J. Ward hit him on the right knee and Gronkowski went down hard and was unable to leave the field under his own power as he was carted off to the locker room in obvious pain. The extent of his injury is unknown, but it does not look good for the dominant tight end as his season is likely in jeopardy.
Without Gronkowski, the Patriots immediately lost all spark on both sides of the ball. Credit Cleveland offensive coordinator Norv Turner, quarterback Jason Campbell, tight end Jordan Cameron, and especially wide receiver Josh Gordon who all planned and executed a smart and aggressive offensive game plan to near perfection and led 26 to 14 late in the fourth quarter and seemed poised to pull off the huge upset.
However, Tom Brady and the Patriots offense drove down the field quickly getting the ball with 2:39 to play and down by 12 points. Brady worked exclusively to Julian Edelman and Shane Vereen hurrying down the field to get a touchdown strike to Julian Edelman in the back of the end zone. A vicious unnecessary roughness penalty on former Eagles cornerback Jordan Poyer hitting Julian Edelman hard in the head on the reception gave the Patriots a crucial 15 yards closer to the end zone.
Kicking off from the fifty yard line after the penalty, the Patriots were down 26-21 and attempted and recovered an onside kick to give them the ball at the forty. A quick check of replay showed no illegal touching and a legal recovery by Kyle Arrington. Tom Brady got to work right away with a quick pass to Danny Amendola to get New England to the thirty yard line. Tom Brady went for it all and lobbed the ball into the end zone to rookie wide receiver Josh Boyce. There was a very questionable pass interference call in the end zone on Cleveland quarterback Joe Haden that the Patriots were more than happy to accept. With a huge break again going their way and set up with first and goal at the one yard line with thirty-five seconds to play the Patriots were improbably in position to take the lead.
Quarterback Tom Brady found wide receiver Danny Amendola in the end zone to take the lead 27-26. The Patriots were unable to convert the two-point conversion as Shane Vereen was stopped short on a running play, but the fact that the Patriots were down 19-3, lost tight end Rob Gronkowski, and then were in position to take the lead with 31 seconds left in the game was remarkable. Quarterback Tom Brady threw for 323 yards in the second half and the Patriots defense was left to try to keep Cleveland from getting into field goal range.
As always, the game was not over until the clock hit all zeros. Cleveland quarterback Jason Campbell took over at the twenty and no time outs made two quick completions to tight ends Gary Barnidge and Jordan Cameron and got the Browns 27 yards in a hurry. All of a sudden the game was not over and the Browns were nearing field goal range. A completion to Cameron again to the New England 40 yard line and Campbell set the Browns and spiked the ball with one second to play. This set-up a 58 yard field goal attempt for kicker Billy Cundiff. The kick went up straight as all of New England held its collective breath as the kick fell short, and the Patriots had the most improbable of wins this season.
The second half had started just like the first as the Patriots punted away on their first drive of the half. Again, the drive was stalled by a holding penalty and a sack moving New England too far back to convert. The Browns opened the second half driving down to score a touchdown of on a broken play to backup tight end Gary Barnidge which he rumbled forty yards. The Browns running game was unable to convert the two-point conversion and the Patriots trailed 12-0 early in the third quarter.
On the ensuing drive the Patriots lost tight end Rob Gronkowski for the game (and likely the season) and on the next play quarterback Tom Brady lost the ball trying to shovel a pass off while being sacked and Cleveland recovered. Driving to mid-field, the Browns were unable to convert and punted it back to New England. With no points, poor field condition, missing their top receiving weapon, and down by two touchdowns, the Patriots were looking at being 20 minutes from a humiliating loss at home to a 4-8 team.
The Patriots put together a scoring drive at last, but the drive stalled in the red zone and the Patriots kicked a field goal. They had to convert a fourth and one to extend the drive, but only put up three. On the next snap, Cleveland wide receiver Josh Gordon took a crossing route and stiff armed cornerback Aqib Talib and he was off to the races. Eighty yards later it was 19-3 Cleveland and the Patriots were down big with only 1:25 to go in the third quarter.
Finally, the Patriots offense woke up as the Patriots went Vereen, Vereen, Vereen to score their first touchdown of the game. Tom Brady found running back Shane Vereen in single coverage deep down the left sideline. Fifty yards later the Patriots were at the 22 yard line and another pass to Vereen put New England down to the six yard line. A draw to Vereen and he was in the end zone accounting for all 72 yards on the drive. A two-point conversion to Julian Edelman and it was 19-11 and New England was back in the game.
The Patriots defense got a big stop when Cleveland got the ball back on the ensuing drive as defensive end Rob Ninkovich got to quarterback Jason Campbell finally to sack him and force a punt. Getting the ball back, quarterback Tom Brady fed the ball to Shane Vereen repeatedly to move into Cleveland territory. Once Cleveland keyed on the passing game, the Patriots started pounding with Stevan Ridley. Then it was back to the passing game. Trying to do too much hurt the Patriots again on the drive as an intentional grounding penalty and taking a sack forced a long field goal attempt. Fortunately, kicker Stephen Gostkowski pounded a fifty yard field goal to make the score 19-14 and cut the deficit to five points with 5:48 to play in the game.
Cleveland came back pulling out all the stops on offense. Jason Campbell found tight end Jordan Cameron for thirteen yards and then an end around to wide receiver Josh Gordon went for 34 yards to get the Browns near field goal range. However, an iffy intentional grounding penalty forced a third and seventeen attempt. Campbell seemingly converted a nineteen yard pass to who else but Josh Gordon, but with 3:32 to play, the completion was challenged by Bill Belichick but the replay held up and it was a first down and loss of timeout. With that, it was a matter of time and the Browns stayed aggressive finding Jordan Cameron twice on the drive for a big first down and the clinching touchdown to make it 26-14 Cleveland with only 2:39 to play.
The Patriots defense came out to start the game being tested immediately by the Cleveland offense. Quarterback Jason Campbell and the Browns mixed the run and pass adroitly moving the ball downfield on their initial drive. However, what stood out right away was that Cleveland quarterback Jason Campbell did not even get near throwing the ball to wide receiver Josh Gordon on either of the first two drives of the game for Cleveland. Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib was locking up the dynamic young playmaker in single coverage.
On the second drive by Cleveland, Rookie cornerback Logan Ryan was beat by Greg Little deep down the sideline on third and six, but pressure by linebacker Dane Fletcher and a hit by rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones caused him to unload a beat early and missed an easy touchdown as Ryan struggled to catch-up after being beat by the double move in man coverage with safety Devin McCourty not in the play deep. Cleveland had to settle for a field goal.
The Patriots came out flat on offense again, as the Patriots were impotent on offense. After a three-and-out to open their drive, on the second drive the Patriots faced third and ten and Brady tried to force it into rookie wide receiver Josh Boyce and the ball was intercepted by Cleveland linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. Giving the Browns a short field, Cleveland drove downfield behind a 21 yard scramble by quarterback Jason Campbell and a short conversion on third down to Jordan Cameron. Fortunately, the Patriots defense was helped by Cleveland when wide receiver Josh Gordon dropped a pass, tight end Jordan Cameron was called for a false start and quarterback Jason Campbell threw incomplete on third and eight. Cleveland again had to settle for a field goal to make it 6-0 Cleveland.
The Patriots looked to be in position to drive down the field at last against the Browns. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady schooled rookie linebacker Barkevious Mingo as James Develin went for 31 yards up the sidelines. Mingo made up for it two plays later as he blew past Logan Mankins, the left guard, who was pulling over to the right side to block the right outside linebacker. Mankins was just late, and Mingo sacked Brady and pushed the Patriots out of field goal range. It was a very odd blocking assignment, and it cost the Patriots points as running back Shane Vereen dropped a screen pass on third and eighteen.
After Cleveland went three-and-out again with no Josh Gordon sightings, the Browns punted right back to New England. With rookie wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson inactive due to injury, the Patriots had to lean on their fourth-round draft pick, Josh Boyce. After a nice fifteen yard pickup to start the drive, Boyce just plain dropped a wide receiver screen on second and eleven. On third and long, wide receiver Danny Amendola was bumped off his spot (or tackled well before the ball arrived depending on your interpretation of the play) and with no penalty flag down the Patriots again punted away to Cleveland.