What was it Bill Belichick said this week? “When you have two challenges, I don’t see anything wrong with the concept of, 'You can challenge any two plays you want.'" His displeasure referenced a fair catch interference non-call made in the Patriots game against Houston. “I understand that judgment calls are judgment calls, but to say that an important play can’t be reviewed, I don’t think that’s really in the spirit of trying to get everything right and making sure the most important plays are officiated properly." Funny thing, a similar play happened in the Cleveland game. On a Browns second-and-8 play, Jason Campbell threw to Greg Little. Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower was there to wrap Little up, spin him around, and throw him to the ground. It appeared Little fumbled the ball well before he hit the ground, which the Patriots recovered, but the officials ruled in favor of forward progress. It was a complete pass for no gain. A furious Belichick screamed his displeasure and stuffing the red challenge flack back into his sock.
Toward the end of the first quarter, veteran quarterback and future Hall of Famer Tom Brady made a really crappy throw. It was third-and-10 on New England's 35-yard line and Brady was in shotgun. After the snap, there was some action around the quarterback's feet. Instead of hitting an open Rob Gronkowski, Brady attempted a pass to receiver Josh Boyce, who was not open. Boyce was covered over the top and Cleveland also had defensive backs coming across the route. D'Qwell Jackson made the easy interception.
The whole first quarter was just ugly for New England. Time of possession: Two minutes and two seconds. Total yards: 22. Turnovers: One, a bad interception thrown by Brady. Penalties: One, (for too many men, no less) New England's first since the Denver game. Missed tackles: Too many to count. It was like the beginning of the Houston game all over again. New England managed to climb out of a 17-7 halftime hole last week, and a 24-0 hole the week before that, but coming out flat for a third week-straight couldn't have been the plan.
MOST SHAMEFUL TRIFECTA OF PLAYS
The Patriots' offensive sputtering continued into the second quarter. New England's first drive of the frame started slowly, but relatively speaking, surely; the team picked up its fourth first down on Cleveland's 29-yard line. That's when things fell apart in three quick plays. First, the down was flipped to a second after the Patriots got hit with an illegal shift penalty. Second, Brady was sacked for a loss of 8 yards. The third? Shane Vereen dropped the pass on third-and-18. Aaaand punt.
BEST USE OF NATURAL ABILITIES
Jamie Collins is a long and lean linebacker at 6-3, 250-pounds. The former quarterback showed some impressive athleticism at the 2013 NFL combine, running a 4.64 40-yard dash, hitting a 139.0 inch broad jump, and a 41.5 inch vertical. It was that leaping ability that really came in handy Sunday. Campbell looked to a wide open Josh Gordon in a second-and-10 situation, but the ball never came close as Collins skied to break up the pass. Cleveland couldn't convert on the ensuing third-and-10 and was forced to punt.
The Patriots entered the break at a deficit for the fourth-straight week. In the previous two games, against Denver and Houston, New England stormed back with outpourings of 34 and 27 points respectively to win the games. Same thing this week? Not quite. The Patriots' first series fizzled out on their own 36-yard line after six plays and it was Cleveland who scored first in the second half. Not only did they score, but they got the points on a 40-yard touchdown bomb. The Browns were up 12-0. Maybe New England, after two dramatic games won on just 30 minutes of offense, decided to try playing just ONE quarter of offense. Yeah. Or something.
BUSIEST TIME FOR SCOREBOARD OPERATOR
Hope you didn't take a bathroom break or go grab another beer in the last two minutes of the third quarter. Cleveland struck first with a whiplash-inducing "drive." Josh Gordon ran a 9-yard slant, cleanly beat Talib's coverage, and caught the pass from Campbell. The receiver was off and running, streaking 71 yards for a touchdown. But the Patriots answered with a three-play, 72-yard series powered entirely by Shane Vereen. New England executed a two-point conversion afterward. Cleveland's lead went from 12-3 to 19-11 in a minute and a half.
In the third quarter Brady looked to Rob Gronkowski on a first-and-10 throw. Gronkowski made the grab but got torpedoed in the right knee by Browns defensive back T.J. Ward. A collective gasp went up from Gillette Stadium's crowd as the replay was shown on the JumboTron. Gronkowski remained on his side for several minutes, grimacing in pain, as trainers called for the cart. The tight end left the game and it seemed like a shadow fell over New England.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
New England certainly struggled, but Shane Vereen never quit. The running back was a workhorse, with 8 receptions for 121 yards to lead all pass catchers. He averaged an impressive 13 yards on every touch Sunday afternoon. He also chipped in 2 carries for 9 yards and a touchdown. Yet another productive day for Vereen since he returned from a wrist injury Week 11.
BIGGEST OPPORTUNITY MISSED
Cleveland started its final series of the game with less than 6 minutes left in regulation. The Patriots had a chance to ground the drive when the Browns snapped the ball on third-and-17 on New England's 40-yard line. No luck; Campbell hit Gordon, who again beat Talib, with a 19-yard pass. The home team challenged the ruling but officials upheld it. Cleveland made it a two-possession game at 26-14 with 2 minutes and 39 seconds to play.