The Browns came into Foxboro as one of the best defenses in football. They were a top-10 team when it came to stopping the run. They were a top-10 team against the pass. They were a top-10 team in terms of points allowed.
But they were reminded that this week there is very little anyone can do to stop a perfectly-placed throw. Mac Jones had his share of those on Sunday -- including several on third down to extend first-half drives -- and the Patriots rolled, 45-7.
The game carried significant playoff implications for both sides, according to the number-crunchers. Per Five Thirty Eight, the Patriots (6-4) now have a 68 percent chance of making the postseason. Had they lost to the Browns (5-5), their odds of making the playoffs would've dipped to 32 percent.
That the Patriots ended up on the right side of that swing was thanks in large part to the play of their rookie quarterback, who completed six of his seven third-down throws for 80 yards and a touchdown. He finished the game 19-for-23 overall for 198 yards (an 8.6 yards per attempt figure) and three touchdowns.
Jones put together his first three-touchdown game of his career in part thanks to a plan that required a quick release to neutralize a talented duo of Cleveland pass-rushers in Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney.
Jones' attempts were out -- on average, according to Next Gen Stats -- in 2.41 seconds. (For reference, the quickest release time in football over the duration of this season is Ben Roethlisberger's at 2.38 seconds.) Still, while quick to draw, Jones was able to push the ball down the field occasionally with accurate throws to Jakobi Meyers on a 26-yard third-and-nine conversion, Kendrick Bourne on a 23-yard touchdown up the seam and a 19-yard bucket throw to Henry. He completed six of seven attempts that traveled 10 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage.
Jones was surgical in the red zone as well with short strikes to Hunter Henry for a pair of three-yard scores -- one on a corner route and one on a skinny post.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels acknowledged that over the previous two weeks, after wins over the Chargers and Panthers, that the team's offense had hit the occasional "dry spell." Jones himself admitted he could play better.
But after posting a combined 75.7 quarterback rating in Weeks 8 and 9, with rumblings of a "rookie wall" coming down on this year's No. 15 overall pick, Jones came through with a 142.1 rating against Cleveland. More important than the statistical production, though, was the combination of the quick-trigger throws with deep-passing accuracy Jones exhibited. That across-the-board passing-game execution -- which spoke to his pre-snap understanding of the Browns defense and his ability to process post-snap -- seemed to represent a step forward in his development. It also made him the clear-cut best quarterback on the field Sunday.
“Mac always looks poised," Bourne said later. "I don’t know what it is. He’s just driven in different ways, wired a different way.
"He’s just relaxed and I think that’s how we all need to play. He’s not thinking about the next play. He’s not thinking about the last play. He’s thinking about the current play. That mindset can take you far in this league when you have that kind of mindset. I think he has it."
After Sunday's passing clinic, it's fair to wonder how far Jones' mindset, when paired with an accurate right arm, can take the Patriots.
No surprise Jones' grade in this week's Report Card will be a good one...
There was a screwy sequence down in the red zone against the Panthers, with the Patriots already up big, that seemed to irk McDaniels. Jones threw twice toward the end zone, but neither was particularly close to anyone wearing a red, white and blue jersey. McDaniels didn't hesitate to share his displeasure with his quarterback immediately on the sideline once Jones walked off. The chewing-out appeared to continue once McDaniels plopped down on Jones next to the bench. Even with the game nearly in hand, McDaniels was pushing for more.
He got it Sunday.
Jones lofted one of his prettiest passes of the season to Henry in the back corner of the end zone -- perhaps playing off the aggressiveness of the defensive back in coverage after watching Henry sit at the goal line for a score in Carolina -- for a three-yard score.
Later in the game, Jones found Henry again. This time, with the safety in coverage not sure whether to expect the corner route or the curl at the goal line, Henry broke off a well-executed skinny post. Jones looked off the free safety, using his eyes to drag the safety away from Henry, then ripped a strike to his tight end. Heady stuff.
It yet was another example of Jones' ability to bounce back. He's flashed that type of resiliency since training camp. After a bad practice, he returned to the field and was lights-out. Long stretches of shaky play haven't lasted long this fall, either.
The last two games -- both wins -- were the closest thing Jones has experienced in terms of a prolonged run of discombobulation. On top of that, he dealt with being labeled a "dirty" player by Carolina's Brian Burns for having grabbed the defensive end's foot after fumbling.
Didn't seem to bother his week of prep.
"All he cares about is football," Devin McCourty said Sunday when asked about Jones' focus in the face of adversity. "He doesn’t care about any outside noise. They did a nice job over there at ‘Bama. He’s been locked in and it’s been fun to watch."
Running back: A-
The Patriots had to have been thankful that rookie Rhamondre Stevenson cleared concussion protocol prior to the game. Without Damien Harris, Stevenson carried the load. He ended the game with 20 carries for 100 yards and two scores.
Stevenson's first touchdown was the gut punch to Cleveland one play after Baker Mayfield was picked off in the second quarter. He only continued to deliver body blows over the course of the game, protecting the ball throughout and coming up with a hard-nosed run that might fly under the radar. Backed up at their own one-yard line, the Patriots handed to Stevenson on first down, who was initially stopped at the line of scrimmage. But he churned his legs and ended up picking up a hard five yards. That was followed by a four-yard run and an 18-yard third-down scamper that really got the Patriots on their 99-yard touchdown drive.
Brandon Bolden only had to carry three times, but when he did he was effective. He had 32 yards total, 22 of which came on a heavy-personnel set (two backs, two tight ends) that helped set up Stevenson's second touchdown of the game. Bolden also was a big-time factor in the screen game, with three catches for 38 yards. The only reason this grade isn't higher is because J.J. Taylor carried six times for 11 yards. Without Harris, the depth at this position looks a little thin.
Wide receiver: A
This group came through big and in a variety of ways Sunday.
Through the air? Jakobi Meyers reeled in two third-down conversions -- including a 26-yard grab on third and nine -- while Kendrick Bourne came up with the best catch of the day on his 23-yard score.
On the ground? Bourne ran three times on end-around plays for 43 total yards. Bourne picked up 15 yards on a first-and-20 play that helped keep the Patriots offense on schedule during their first drive of the game. Without it, they may not be able to grind out their 15-play, 83-yard drive that burned 9:39 on the clock.
As blockers? N'Keal Harry caught one pass -- a 26-yarder late from Brian Hoyer -- but was effective on the edge all afternoon. He pinned defensive end Myles Garrett inside on Stevenson's crack-toss touchdown to make the score 14-7. He also helped set an edge for Bourne when the Patriots tried to attack Cleveland's pass-rushing talent on the outside with run plays to get them thinking. "He made a lot of tremendous blocks," Bourne said later.
The cherry on top? Meyers' first touchdown of his career. He holds the record for career catches without a score (143) but that scoreless streak was ended when Hoyer found him near the sideline. Meyers did the rest, breaking a tackle, to dive across the goal line. He said after that the greatest thrill of the entire experience wasn't that he scored but that his teammates mobbed him -- with almost the entire bench area cleared -- to celebrate in the back of the end zone.
"Honestly, the fact that everybody celebrated with me means more than the touchdown," Meyers said. "I feel like it says a lot about your teammates and what they think of you, and just the fact that they were all there. I know they’ve been waiting on that, they’ve been real patient."
Tight end: A-
To see that Jonnu Smith was inactive came as somewhat of a surprise pregame. But the team called up Matt LaCosse off the practice squad earlier in the weekend, indicating that there may have been a move coming with Smith, who was limited in practices leading up to the game due to a shoulder issue. Still, this group put together a strong showing led by another impressive receiving performance from Hunter Henry.
To understand the way in which Henry freed himself up on his two scores, you have to go back to the Panthers game from Week 9. In that one, Henry took advantage of a safety playing soft near the goal line (perhaps expecting Henry to break to the corner) by stopping upon hitting the end zone and turning around for a quick-hitting score from Jones. The Browns noticed, apparently, because they played Henry tight at the goal line in the first quarter. Henry recognized it and broke to the corner for touchdown No. 1.
With those two scoring plays still fresh for Cleveland, Henry then showed a third option at the goal line. He toyed with safety John Johnson off the line of scrimmage, reading the defender's leverage. Would Henry stop at the goal line? Break for the corner? Neither. Instead he shook Johnson and broke in for a touchdown on a skinny post.
There now seem to be examples of the red-zone connection between Jones and Henry, who at the moment seem to be seeing things through the same set of eyes, on a weekly basis. Even between the 20s, Henry and Jones were in sync. Jones' 19-yard throw to Henry, who made a diving-and-bobbling catch along the sideline, was one of his best of the day.
“There is a lot of work that is put in throughout the week," Henry said later. "I think that’s continuing to grow as you see as the season has progressed. There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. Everybody else sees the stuff that goes on when we’re playing but there is a lot of work that builds up to that. All that stuff is kind of paying off week by week and we just have to continue to improve and get better every day and take advantage of those opportunities."
One of their best connections of the day, an 11-yarder zipped to the sideline where Jones stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure from Myles Garrett, was called back because of a penalty.
Offensive line: B+
This group was flagged for a couple of penalties. First there was a holding call on Shaq Mason that wiped out a six-yard run by Stevenson. Later there was an illegal-use-of-hands call on Isaiah Wynn right before the half that wiped out an 11-yard completion to Henry. But otherwise? Clean... and dominant.
The Patriots ran for 5.8 yards per carry with their backs and receivers, and they punched in two short-area scores on the ground. In the passing game, they allowed two sacks but those were the lone quarterback hits Jones took all day. Jones was pressured on just three dropbacks all game.
Wynn missed a cut block on Garrett at the Cleveland 16-yard line, which led to a sack and a third-and-13 situation that the Patriots converted with a screen to Bolden. The Browns got another sack from Malik McDowell early in the third quarter when Jones surveyed for a beat too long. But that was it.
Part of the plan to keep the rush at bay was for Jones to get rid of the football quickly. Part of the plan was to run the type of mess-with-a-rusher's-head types of calls that the Patriots run weekly: draws, screens, move-the-pocket throws. Part of the plan was looking to edge runs -- end-arounds to Bourne, crack tosses -- to keep Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney thinking.
But the line held up its end of the bargain on the straight dropback passing game, which allowed Jones all the time he needed to put together his best game as a pro.
Special teams: B+
Jakobi Meyers looked a little tentative as a punt-returner with Gunner Olszewski out (concussion). But otherwise this group was fine.
Nick Folk drilled his only field-goal try (38 yards) and hit all six point-after tries. Jake Bailey's lone punt went for 66 yards and landed at the Cleveland 14-yard line after a hometown roll. Both Bolden and Taylor got a crack at returning kicks. Bolden's went for just 14 yards, while Taylor's went for 25.
Kyle Dugger drilled Browns return man Anthony Schwartz, who later was entered into concussion protocol. Tone-setting kind of hit headed into halftime.
"The interception was just one of the things he did well today," McCourty said of Dugger. "His physicality... That play before the half hitting Schwartz, that was devastating."
Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel, Brandon King and Calvin Munson also came up with kicking-game tackles in this one. One of the only ways in which the Browns might've been able to keep this one close would've been an explosive return or two. But the Patriots only allowed a long return of 28 yards.
Defensive line: A-
Cleveland picked up 58 yards on four D'Ernest Johnson carries on the opening drive of the game. Not ideal. But from there? He had 41 yards on 15 carries for an average of just 2.7 yards per attempt.
Before the game got out of hand, before the Browns were forced to lean on their passing game in order to attempt a comeback, the Patriots made some adjustments to make sure Johnson didn't run at will after his hot start.
The Patriots got caught in a nickel defense -- with five defensive backs deployed -- on a second-and-long play on the game's first drive. Johnson ran for a first down, and because the Browns went no-huddle from there, the Patriots had to keep their smaller defense on the field.
From there on, when the Browns had their multi-back or multi-tight end packages in, the Patriots often stuck with base personnel: three true defensive linemen and four linebackers, with five bodies along the line of scrimmage. They went big, and it paid dividends.
"They went no-huddle when we tried to sub some personnel in so we kind of slowed down on the substitutions and went from first down to second down and stayed in the same group," Matt Judon said. "But we changed a couple things up and changed how we lined up, what our keys was, and that worked out very well. Kudos to the coaches for seeing a picture and kinda drawing some stuff up in the dirt and making sure we stop everything."
Helping this group's grade was 1.5 sacks from Deatrich Wise, including a sack-fumble, and a half sack from Lawrence Guy. This group also nearly put together a nice goal-line stand to start the game when it swallowed up a Wildcat run from fullback Johnny Stanton.
Christian Barmore continued to cause consistent problems as well. He was driving his blocker into Baker Mayfield's lap on the Kyle Dugger interception, and he nearly helped create a second pick with a hit on Mayfield. The pass on that rep ended up slipping through the arms of JC Jackson.
Making sure the Patriots had the proper personnel package to thwart Cleveland's running game meant inserting Ja'Whaun Bentley into the mix on a more regular basis. He responded by obliterating Browns offensive linemen with a head of steam from five yards off the ball. He helped create one run-stuff by simply plowing through a pulling guard before the guard was in position to execute his block. He had another tackle for loss later, firing through the line with abandon.
There is no question, this group embraces contact.
When they weren't clogging up Cleveland's blocking assignments, they were helping create explosive plays. When Mayfield threw his early interception, Dont'a Hightower helped generate pressure off of Barmore's bull rush. Kyle Van Noy helped create a loss of eight yards when he diagnosed a screen, made the stop and forced a fumble. The tackle itself would've gone for a loss of one, but by punching out the football, he created even a little more field position for his offense.
Judon created a near-turnover himself when he put a clean hit on Mayfield that nearly resulted in a second pick for Dugger. That shot from Judon -- who also picked up a half-sack and has a career-high 9.5 in just 10 games -- knocked Mayfield out of the game with a knee injury.
Hightower picked up a half sack. Van Noy had a sack on fourth down that got the Patriots the ball back. Even practice-squad call-up Tashawn Bower had a sack. There was a party on the Browns side of the line of scrimmage all afternoon long, and the linebackers had themselves a time.
“We evolved," Judon said when asked about the Patriots' growth on the defensive side. "We saw how we were being attacked and what was happening to our defense. We made an emphasis on stopping that. Pushing the pocket, collapsing the pocket, making QBs throw from a well. When it gets tight in there, footwork gets bad for QBs.
"Our secondary has been disguising and making it tough on QBs. When you do that, the front end working with the back end, it's hard for QBs and you see what it leads to. We have to continue doing that. Get our pass-rushers to crush the pocket and our DBs to continue covering tight and make plays. Because they're making a lot of plays.”
There were even more plays to be made from this unit on Sunday. McCourty almost had a one-handed pick on third down in the end zone, and the Browns scored one play later. Jackson probably should've had a pick when Barmore forced an underthrown pass out of Mayfield on an early third-down deep shot. Dugger had a chance at a two-pick day but dropped the second.
Still, this group appeared to cover well against a lackluster group of passing-game weapons. Without Odell Beckham Jr. on the field, the top Browns receivers were Jarvis Landry and Donovan Peoples-Jones. While the Patriots have been more of a zone team lately, they had no issue matching up man-to-man and forcing Mayfield to try some low-percentage deep balls and some tight-window attempts. Didn't go well for him. He ended up the least-productive passer of the day, completing just 11 of his 21 attempts for 73 yards. Case Keenum (81 yards on 12 attempts) and Brian Hoyer (85 yards on three attempts) ended the day with better stat lines.
The driving force behind this grade? There were two.
One was Dugger's pick -- which might've been picked by Jalen Mills had Dugger not been there -- because it forced the Browns into a chase position that they aren't built to be in. With their heavy sets and emphasis on the running game, playing from behind is not their forte.
The other was that the secondary did not allow a completed pass targeted beyond 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. Not one. The longest completion of the day was Mayfield's touchdown throw to the back of the end zone from the goal line.
"I thought we did a good job of kind of figuring out some of the things they were to do against us," McCourty said. "The empty spread game, kind of attacking the middle of the field, then the hurry-up, trying to get us in certain things. I think once we got a good idea (of their plan), then Steve [Belichick] knew what he wanted to call.
"...And once we got a lead, those guys (up front) can go in and eat. They do a great job. So when you can go in there and play a four-man rush and get different coverages, then you can get pressure with those four men, it makes it tough on the offense."