By Michael Felger
A half-dozen thoughts from the Patriots' come-back-to-earth debacle in Cleveland:
The single biggest issue on the team remains the third-down defense. The Pats went into Sunday's game ranked dead last in the NFL by allowing opponents to convert 47.4 percent of their chances, and it's hard to believe they'll move out of the basement after allowing the Browns to pick up 7-of-13 opportunities (53.8 percent). Cleveland came into the game converting just 37.8 percent of the time.
It's obvious Bill Belichick is re-emphasizing his bend-but-don't-break philosophy like never before but ranking 32nd out of 32 teams is ridiculous.
It actually looked okay early on, as the Pats held Cleveland short of the stakes on the first three attempts. But then Colt McCoy and the Browns converted their last two attempts of the second quarter and first four of the second half and the next thing you know, the Browns had 17 consecutive points and the win.
We all believe this defense had begun to make strides prior to Sunday, but until the unit can operate at under 40 percent on third downs (at least), it's hard to take it seriously.
Is there less room for the offense to operate down the field since the trade of Randy Moss? Naturally. Of course there is. But the game did nothing to shake my belief that the Pats will be, or already are, a better team without him. You had to know there would be a game where Moss' departure would show up in a loss (and therefore give true ammo to the crowd who felt it was a bad trade) and this happened to be the one.
But I still believe the fundamentals are the same: The Pats will have, or already have, a better offense when it matters most (in the second halves of games, against good competition, in the playoffs, etc.). The aggregate point total won't be the same, but the results will be better.
That being said, a few things need to happen on that side of the ball:
Brandon Tate has to be better. He dropped two passes against the Browns that would have gone for first downs and finished with just one catch for 12 yards. Take out a few big plays last week against the Vikings and Tate's been invisible since the trade. He's the only thing approaching a vertical threat on this team. He needs to be a viable option.
They have to go to Deion Branch more. Or Branch needs to get healthy again. Or he needs to do a better job of getting open. Or all of the above. Branch caught just two passes on Sunday after having only one against Minnesota. It seems Branch and Tom Brady picked up their old rhythm right out of the shoot against the Ravens four games ago, but it's been largely absent since.
Fred Taylor needs to get healthy.
And, of course, Rob Gronkowski can't continue to play like a rookie. He needs to figure out how to get on the same page as Brady. And I don't care that he was fighting for the touchdown at the end of the first half. He can't allow himself to get stripped in that situation.
Obviously, Brady needs to be better, too. But I think that goes without saying. He remains the least of your worries.
I also have to take it on faith that the run defense isn't a worry because if it is, then all bets are off.
Vince Wilfork has told us repeatedly that you can't run on the Pats in their base 3-4 defense. And, for the most part, that's been true this season. So that means we have to treat what Peyton Hillis (184 yards on 29 carries) and the Browns (230 team rushing yards) did to the Pats as an aberration. Right?
You see Brandon Meriweather get lit up by Joshua Cribbs on McCoy's touchdown run in the third quarter?
Belichick got out-coached pretty badly in this one. For one thing, Eric Mangini had his team far more ready to go than Belichick's. But there were also some schemes that totally had the Pats flummoxed, such as the inside-reverse handoff to Chansi Stuckey out of the wildcat that went for a touchdown at the end of the second quarter. The Browns lulled the Pats to sleep and hid Stuckey behind an offense line that remained in a stand-up position at the snap of the ball.
And did you notice the zero-defensive lineman scheme in the fourth quarter? Wonder where Mangini got that one.
Belichick made the mistake of taking a veiled shot at Mangini last week by talking about the Browns' "West Coast" offense, implying that team president Mike Holmgren was exerting more control over the Browns than Mangini. It's not like Mangini needs extra motivation to play the Patriots but Belichick gave it to him.
All that said, the Pats win Sunday night in Pittsburgh. The beauty of the NFL is that one week rarely translates into the next. In fact, the opposite often happens. And so it will against the Steelers.
Felger's report card posts Tuesday morning. E-mail him HERE and read the mailbag on Thursday. Listen to him on the radio weekdays, 2-6 p.m., on 98.5 the Sports Hub.