By Art Martone
Ladies and gentlemen, may we present the Bizarro Patriots.
All the accepted truths of the New England Patriots were turned on their head by the Bizarro Pats in their ghastly 34-14 loss to the Browns in Cleveland on Sunday.
You know how the Patriots never beat themselves? How about Rob Gronkowski and Sammy Morris letting a kickoff drop between them -- Gronkowski called for a fair catch and then backed off -- which led to a) Cleveland recovering the ball on the Pats' 19-yard line and b) scoring a touchdown two plays later? Or Gronkowski fumbling away the ball on the Browns' 2-yard line in the final seconds of the first half when the Pats were driving for a touchdown that would have cut their deficit to three points?
You know how the Patriots chew up and spit out rookie quarterbacks with their baffling combinations of hidden coverages and surprise formations? How about Colt McCoy shredding the Pats' defense as he were playing Florida Atlantic, completing 14 of 19 passes for 174 yards and scrambling for 20 more, including a touchdown?
You know how the Patriots have owned the second half of games this year? How about giving up the first 10 points of the last two quarters, turning a 17-7 game into a 27-7 game and ending any hopes of a New England comeback?
And that's just the top of it. Throw in a raft of dropped passes -- Gronkowski and Brandon Tate were particularly butter-fingered -- the Pats' inability to stop Cleveland's bowling-ball fullback, Peyton Hills (29 carries, 184 yards), a worse-than-the-stats-make-it-look performance by Tom Brady (19-of-36, 224 yards, 2 TDs), and you had a road disaster indisguishable from many of the Patriots' away-from-Gillette efforts of 2009 . . . except that, unlike '09, they didn't give it up at the end. This one started early.
How early? Try a 21-yard pass from McCoy to Mohamed Massaquoi on the game's first play, followed by a setting-the-tone 18-yard run from Hillis that had the Browns on the New England 24. The drive stalled and the Browns had to settle for a 38-yard field goal by Phil Dawson and a 3-0 lead.
But any momentum the Pats may have garnered from that stop was gone in the time it took for Gronkowski and Morris to mess up the ensuing kickoff and for the Browns to recover on the New England 19. A 17-yard pass from McCoy to Evan Moore moved it to the 2, and Hillis scored on the next play for a 10-0 lead.
The Patriots were held to 21 offensive yards in the first quarter, but came alive with an 11-play, 79-yard drive that was capped by a one-yard, Brady-to-Aaron Hernandez pass that made it 10-7 in the second. The Browns, however, responded with a 60-yard scoring drive of their own, going ahead 17-7 on an 11-yard run off the wildcat by Chansi Stuckey.
The Pats' last chance to get back in the game ended when Gronkowski had the ball stripped out of his hands on the Cleveland 2 with 20 seconds left in the half, ending a long drive that, had it ended in a touchdown, would have cut Cleveland's lead to 17-14. Instead the half ended 17-7, the Pats had to punt on their first possession of the third quarter, and McCoy put it away by engineering a 72-yard drive that he capped with a 12-yard scramble for a touchdwn that made it 24-7.
The teams then traded touchdowns, with the Pats scoring on a two-yard Brady-to-Hernandez pass and the Browns on a 35-yard run by Hillis.
The good news for the Patriots? Well, the Jets were losing for most of the day, so it looked as New England might have been able to maintain its one-game lead in the AFC East. But even that fell through, as New York rallied, tied the game on a field goal on the last play of regulation, and won it on a field goal in overtime. So New York and New England are tied again . . . and, since the Jets a) beat the Patriots head-to-head and b) have only one conference loss to the Pats' two, New York has several tie-breaking edges, as well.
The bad news? Everything else.
Art Martone can be reached at email@example.com.