It might be easier to find Bill Belichick smiling than someone who expects the Browns to snap their three-game losing streak and upset the New England Patriots on the road Sunday.
But could Belichick’s men overlook their Week 14 opponent? Could quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and the rest of the Patriots suffer an upset loss to the Browns like they did in 2010?
Probably not because the Patriots know how to take care of business this time of year, as evidenced by their NFL-best record of 46-6 in December since 2001. If the Patriots (9-3) defeat the Browns (4-8), they’d clinch a playoff spot with a loss by the Baltimore Ravens and the AFC East title with a loss by the Miami Dolphins.
Ben Volin covers the Patriots for the Boston Globe. He discussed the team and its upcoming matchup against the Browns in the following question-and-answer session.
Q: Brady and Co. have averaged 35.8 points in the past four games after averaging only 22.3 points in the first four games this season. What are the main reasons for the turnaround in offensive production?
A: “It is several factors, but really it’s all about Gronk. They got him back. He sat out the first six games [while recovering from back and forearm surgeries] and people were confused. ‘What’s this guy up to? Why isn’t he playing yet?’ You kept hearing that he’s close and he’s practicing well. So he finally came back Week 7 against the [New York] Jets, and they worked him back slowly, but he’s just an animal. He completely changes the complexion of the offense. Defenses have to account for him every play. A, he’s hard to stop, and B, he just opens up the field for all the other guys. … He’s such a difference maker. It’s amazing how Brady looks so much better and the running game looks so much better when he’s in the game. If [quarterback] Aaron Rodgers should be MVP because you look at how much impact his loss has on the [Green Bay] Packers, you could argue the same thing for Gronk. He just makes all the difference with the offense right now. He’s got three 100-yard games and he’s scored in four straight games. He’s just been awesome.”
Q: Why is wide receiver Julian Edelman, a former Kent State University quarterback, having a breakout season with 70 catches for 711 yards and two touchdowns?
A: “Well, at first, it was out of necessity. Gronk was out, [running back Shane] Vereen got hurt in the first game, [wide receiver Danny] Amendola got hurt in the first game. All the sudden, Julian Edelman is the only veteran out there. They’ve got a bunch of rookies running around. So really Edelman was the only guy that Brady even knew at the beginning of the year. Amendola was the one who was once said it’s going to be the comparison of [Denver Broncos and ex-Patriots wide receiver Wes] Welker and Amendola. Really Edelman has taken over that slot role. He had a few slow weeks in the middle where he didn’t do much, but otherwise he’s really proving that he can be a dynamic slot receiver. … He’s just been dependable. He’s awesome on punt returns as always. Tom Brady revealed that his nickname for Edelman is “Minitron,” which is pretty hilarious. He’s just been like a steady rock when they’ve had all this turmoil.”
Q: How do you think cornerback Aqib Talib, a Cleveland native, will fare against Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon, who’s compiled 623 receiving yards in the past three games?
A: “Talib was really just phenomenal the first six games of the year, shutting down everyone. They put him on [New Orleans Saints tight end] Jimmy Graham, which was very interesting, and Graham had zero catches for the first time since his rookie year. So Talib was having a great start and then he’s got a history of a hip injury that flared up again this year in the Saints game, which was Week 6, and since then he’s kind of been in and out of the lineup, a little more inconsistent. [Houston Texans wide receiver] Andre Johnson certainly made some nice plays against him the other day. They were playing more zone. I wonder if that’s because that Talib’s not quite healthy. Their No. 2 corner, Alfonzo Dennard, he missed the game. He had meniscus surgery a few weeks ago, so he’s been out of the lineup. So they’ve played more zone. I don’t know if they’ll continue to do that, but I don’t know if Talib’s been the shutdown corner that he was in that first six-game stretch. … The Patriots’ D carried the team the first six or seven games, but now they have so many injuries that it’s really starting to catch up with them. The Patriots’ defense has been leaky and I guarantee you Belichick is showing them a reel of Josh Gordon over and over to kind of burn it into their memories that he’s a Pro Bowl-caliber guy and could have a huge day. So it’ll be interesting to see if they line up Talib on him one-on-one or if they play a little more zone.”
Q: You covered the Dolphins before switching to the Patriots beat this year. What have you learned about Brady that you didn’t know before?
A: “I think it’s interesting that the guy is 36 years old, married to a supermodel, worth hundreds of millions of dollars probably, has three Super Bowl rings, his legend he’s created, he’s a first-ballot hall of famer, and it sounds cliché, but he still approaches the game like he’s a rookie and he’s fighting to make the team. He still badly wants to win another [Super Bowl]. He keeps talking about how he’s going to play till age 50. We all laugh, but he takes incredible care of his body and he just loves playing and he’s a super-intense competitor. He just wants to win, and he’s not satisfied. He just lives on a different planet from everyone else, even the guys in the locker room. He’s married to the supermodel and all that stuff, so he really goes out of his way to be one of the guys as much as he can. He actually does hang out in the locker room a lot, hangs out with the guys and really tries to let his guard down in front of them so they feel comfortable around him, which I think is pretty interesting and shows he’s pretty aware of who he is and what it takes to win in the NFL.”