It was hard to say how pleased, if at all, were the New England Patriots with their 27-26 win over the Cleveland Browns, scoring two touchdowns in the final minute of the game. They got help from the officials, they probably lost Rob Gronkowski for the season (again), and their defense and especially secondary looked embarrassing at times against a team that has only one go-to-guy on offense.
Dyrol Prioleau was the enemy at the end of the day for the Browns. He was the one who made the outrageous call that gave the Patriots a chance to kickoff from the 50 instead of the 35, suggesting that the shoulder to shoulder hit by Jordan Poyer on Julian Edelman as the latter was catching a touchdown pass was unnecessary roughness. He was the one who made the pass interference call against Leon McFadden, as Josh Boyce was unable to connect on a Tom Brady pass. It gave the Patriots the ball on the Browns’ 1-yard line, with Brady throwing the touchdown pass to Danny Amendola.
Everything early on seemed to go against the Patriots. Not the officials – just their terrible play. Tom Brady fumbled the ball and was intercepted once. Rob Gronkowski tore his ACL with the Browns 12-0 in the lead. Yet once again, the Patriots find a way to put all the mistakes behind them and play some championship football. Like they did against the Saints, and like they did against the Broncos, despite awful starts. What does this say about the playoffs? Hard to tell, but despite everything that’s been going on this season, the Pats are still perfect at home and second in the AFC With a 10-3 record. They have now won 3 straight games in which they trailed by double digits in the 2nd half. The last team to do that in one season was the 1993 Eagles.
Brady finished with 418 yards and two touchdowns passes, both of them coming in the final minute of the game. A great performance from Shane Vereen, another player the Patriots missed for most of this season (12 receptions, 153 yards), might help forget about the fact that they’ve lost their most important receiving target. The Patriots were averaging 32 points per game with Gronkowski compared to 20.8 without him. Gronkowski was also Brady’s go-to-guy when he was being blitzed, but now will have to reshuffle his order. In his six full games after returning, he led NFL tight ends with 37 catches and 560 yards receiving.
Is this team a Super Bowl candidate? The record says yes, but considering how badly the Patriots looked through the first six weeks of the season, it’s hard to say if we’ll see them in New Jersey with Gronkowski out for the season. The Browns might have a point about the officials screwing them in the end, but they also missed plenty of opportunities to close the game themselves against a beatable team. The Patriots leave happy about pulling off another comeback, but knowing that at some point, there will be a game that’s too difficult to come back from.