The defense was disciplined, shutting down the Browns’ No. 1-ranked run game despite missing a few key players. The defense was also opportunistic, forcing four turnovers and logging four sacks. The special teams coverage units were solid, forcing yet another turnover.
It certainly wasn’t a perfect performance. The penalties were hideous — a season-high 12 for 92 yards, most of which came on offense. The red zone offense still needs work. The close-out effort in the fourth quarter was less than inspiring. The Patriots better spend some time on their onside kick recovery this week in practice.
But the Patriots are 3-3, and they’re crushing the teams they’re supposed to beat. They rounded into form just in time, with their next four games against the Bears, Jets, Colts, and Jets.
▪ What’s not to love about Bailey Zappe? He threw for 309 yards, completed over 70 percent of his passes, threw a couple of touchdowns and, most importantly, did not throw an interception. There were a few hairy moments, as Zappe sailed a few throws and the offense stalled at times. He also was busted for intentional grounding and had more trouble with the play clock.
But those are minor quibbles. For a rookie making his second start, he was fantastic. Zappe spread the ball around well — five receivers had at least four catches. He finally got Henry and Smith involved. He squeezed a few passes into tight windows. The receivers actually seem to catch his 50-50 balls, with DeVante Parker coming down with a beautiful 29-yarder on the sideline. And Zappe is poised and in control — impressively so for a rookie — when avoiding the pass rush and moving around the pocket.
Yes, I do think the Patriots have a quarterback controversy on their hands. There’s no need to turn back to a less-than-healthy Mac Jones when Zappe has clearly proven he can play like a winning quarterback.
▪ Zappe will be the talk of the town for the week, but for the second straight week, the win was driven by the Patriots’ defense. After shutting out the No. 1 scoring offense last week against Detroit, the Patriots shut down the Browns’ No. 1-ranked rushing attack. The Browns averaged 192 rushing yards per game entering Sunday, and the Patriots held them to 70 yards on 18 carries (3.9 average). Nick Chubb, the NFL’s leading rusher, had just 12 carries for 56 yards.
Some of that success was due to the Patriots jumping out to a 24-6 lead and making the Browns one-dimensional. But the Patriots’ run defense was excellent, even more so considering Lawrence Guy missed his third straight game due to an injury and Christian Barmore left the game early with a knee injury.
▪ Defensive coordinator Steve Belichick has done a terrific job the last two weeks. The Patriots’ defense forced four turnovers Sunday, and did a great job of mixing up blitzes and making life miserable for Jacoby Brissett. He completed just 21 of 45 passes (47 percent), and a good chunk of his passing yards were picked up in garbage time.
The Lions and Browns, who were the No. 1 and No. 6-ranked scoring offense, combined for just one touchdown against the Patriots’ defense.
▪ Kyle Dugger and Matthew Judon were absolute threats. Dugger was all over the field in the first half, finishing with eight tackles, an interception, and a QB hit on a blitz up the middle (although we saw his limitations when he allowed a 33-yard catch to tight end David Njoku). Judon didn’t have a sack for the first time this season, but he had four tackles, one for loss, and made a great effort in stuffing Brissett on fourth and 1 in the first half.
▪ It was only a matter of time, and right tackle Isaiah Wynn finally got benched for Marcus Cannon after committing a false start in the red zone and allowing a strip-sack to Myles Garrett. Wynn did come back for a spell in the fourth quarter, but he has been an obvious weakness at right tackle and the Patriots can’t stand by him any longer.
▪ Another week, another banner day for the Patriots’ rookie class. First-rounder Cole Strange did not commit a penalty. Second-rounder Tyquan Thornton scored his first two NFL touchdowns — one in the air and one on the ground. Third-round cornerback Marcus Jones and fourth-round cornerback Jack Jones each made nice pass break-ups against Amari Cooper. Zappe had the first 300-yard game of his career.
▪ This is the type of game that could get some Browns defensive coaches fired. The unit, led by defensive coordinator Joe Woods, was already under a lot of heat after allowing 440 rushing yards the previous two weeks. Now they got shredded by a rookie, third-string quarterback, and looked disorganized. Henry was wide open for a 31-yard touchdown. No one touched Thornton on his final score. And in the second quarter, the Patriots conceded a field goal on third and 10 and just tried to play for field position by calling a draw play. But the Browns’ defense blitzed, overran the play, and Rhamondre Stevenson scampered in for a 31-yard touchdown.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.