NFL Preview - Cleveland (4-8) at New England (9-3)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Cleveland Browns have myriad problems to address while trying to end a skid that's seen them lose six of seven games - including three in a row - since a 3-2 start.
But first things first, they need to find a quarterback healthy enough to play in time for this weekend's visit to Gillette Stadium to face the New England Patriots.
Already without newly minted starter Jason Campbell thanks to a concussion, the Browns lost yet another passer last week when fill-in Brandon Weeden was diagnosed with a concussion of his own in a last-minute loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Both Campbell and Weeden remain questionable for the Patriots, and, if both are unable to go, Cleveland's fortunes would be left in the hands of a man with no NFL experience since 2011 - or none at all.
Weeden threw for a career-best 370 yards along with three touchdowns and a pair of interceptions against the Jaguars, including a would-be decisive scoring connection with Josh Gordon that covered 95 yards with 3 minutes, 55 seconds remaining.
Gordon caught 10 balls for 261 yards and a pair of TDs in the 32-28 loss, which topped the franchise-record 237 yards he'd established just a week earlier against Pittsburgh. He's the first player in NFL history to better 200 receiving yards in two straight games. Additionally, his 498 yards in two games are a league record, as are his 623 yards in three games.
"You're seeing the product of his hard work and his commitment to what he's been doing," said Browns coach Rob Chudzinski. "It's no surprise to me."
His prospective passing partners against the Patriots are ex-Chicago Bear Caleb Hanie, who's not played since going 0-4 as a starter in 2011. He spent 16 games as a member of the Denver Broncos last season, but never threw a pass. If it's not Hanie, it'll be former Dallas Cowboys practice squad member Alex Tanney, a 26-year-old Monmouth College product who's spent time on the rosters of three teams - Kansas City, Dallas and Cleveland - but has never played.
Hanie and Tanney have split first-string practice time this week.
New England's pass defense is ranked 10th in the league through 12 games, allowing 224 aerial yards per game.
"We'll have different possibilities and we'll have to see how it plays out during the course of the week, when guys can practice or be cleared to practice or be cleared to play and how much practice time they would need," Chudzinski said. "It may be different for each guy."
Cleveland has been outscored by 34 points in the opening halves of its last three games and its defense has been gashed for an overall total of 100 points. Not a good combination heading into a matchup with the chronically prolific Patriots, who are sixth in the league in scoring and ninth in total offense through 13 weeks.
New England has also fallen behind in its last two games - by double digits against both Denver and Houston - but rallied to win both by matching 34-31 verdicts. It's been outscored, 34-7, in the first quarter of its last three games and have trailed at halftime in four of the last five.
Quarterback Tom Brady has completed 73 percent of his throws for an average of 233 yards in the second halves of the last three games. In the last two games overall, he's thrown for 715 yards and five TD passes against one interception.
He has 12 TDs and three interceptions in the Patriots' six home games, all wins.
His top targets as of late have been wideout Julian Edelman (18 catches, 211 yards in two games) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (419 yards, four TDs in four games).
"Coach will come in at halftime and say 'OK, these are the things we're going to have to do well to move the ball,'" Brady said,
A Patriots win and a Miami loss or tie against Pittsburgh will clinch a fifth straight AFC East Division crown for New England, which leads the Dolphins by three games and the New York Jets by four games with four games remaining.
New England is a game behind Denver for the top seed in the conference and will win the No. 1 position if those teams wind up tied.
"We've got to start playing better football in the first half and come out with a better start, and move the ball better," Gronkowski said.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Cleveland racked up 31 sacks in the initial eight games of the season, but the pass rush has been slowed to a drip in the last four weeks - in which the Browns have managed just two sacks. They also allowed 77 yards to Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew last week, which means Chudzinski and Co. will need to pay extra attention against a team like New England.
Start off strong.
The Patriots have enough quick-strike capability to overcome any deficit, as the wins over Denver and Houston have shown. In fact, New England has scored points on 13 of its last 17 second-half drives across three games. But their objective is not to continue digging such holes. To do so, they'll need to better the 10 first-half points they've scored in three games.
It's hard to concoct a best-circumstances scenario in which the Browns win this game in Foxborough, let alone keep it close. Add in the prospect of either a dinged-up quarterback, a rusty quarterback or a full-on first-time quarterback and the fortunes appear even bleaker. Unless the Patriots are awash in a storm of mistakes, this goes down as an easy week.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Patriots 31, Browns 13
12/05 11:12:40 ET