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NFL Preview - New England (6-1) at Cleveland (2-5)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Happiness is a good, firm handshake.
And given his team's recent rebound from a Week 2 disappearance to a Week 8 re-ascension, it's hard to imagine a return to the days of grip and grimace for New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
After all, when the Patriots czar glares across the field at former underling Eric Mangini in Sunday's matchup with the Cleveland Browns, it'll be with slightly less drama than in their three years of matchups in East Rutherford and Foxborough.
Then, Mangini's New York Jets were at least intermittent threats to the Patriots' supremacy in the AFC East, beating them once each in 2006 and 2008 and famously levying surreptitious filming charges that became fodder for the infamous "Spygate" scandal.
The prodigy formerly known as "Man-Genius" was voted out of the New Jersey swamps after the 2008 season following a third-year implosion, however, and his new team -- the Browns -- has been quietly reshuffling its decks for 1 1/2 seasons while not crossing paths with Belichick & Co.
That changes when the 6-1 Pats meet the 2-5 Browns along the Lake Erie shoreline this weekend. But will it be a special reunion?
Just ask Belichick, who was his usual non-revealing self in a Wednesday media conference call.
"We're both coaching teams that are going to play on Sunday," he said. "We're both going to put a lot into this week and try and win on Sunday.
"Right now, [the focus] is just trying to get my team ready. Get the Patriots ready to play the Browns. It's not really about any personal thing. I'm trying to do a job, so is the rest of our team. So is their team. We will see what happens on Sunday."
Mangini presumably has more pressing weekend concerns as well.
The second-year Browns boss is in the midst of a trial run for rookie quarterback Colt McCoy, the former University of Texas standout who's made his initial two NFL starts over the last two games -- losing at Pittsburgh on Oct. 17 before returning to help Cleveland to a surprising 30-17 win at New Orleans seven days later.
Veteran signal-callers Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace didn't make significant progress from high-ankle sprains during the team's subsequent bye week and neither practiced Wednesday, leaving the young McCoy likely to go ahead and duel with long-time role model Tom Brady.
"For me, just being on the field with Tom Brady, that's kind of like last week [against the Saints' Drew Brees]," McCoy said. "Tom Brady has won three Super Bowls, and just to be out there playing against him, that's awesome for me."
Cleveland holds an 11-9 edge in the all-time regular-season series with New England, but the Patriots have won four straight and six of the last seven meetings between the teams dating back to 1995. The Browns' only victory over that stretch was a 19-11 home triumph in 2000. In the most recent encounter, New England posted a 34-17 win in Foxborough en route to a 16-0 regular season in 2007, and came through with a 42-15 rout of the Browns in its last visit to Cleveland, which took place in 2004.
In addition to their slight regular-season advantage, the Browns have prevailed in their only lifetime postseason matchup with New England. That win, a 20-13 verdict in Cleveland in a 1994 AFC Wild Card Playoff, was engineered with Belichick then in charge of the Browns.
Belichick and Mangini have an extensive history with one another, with the latter serving as an assistant under Belichick in New England from 2000-05 and the two also working on the coaching staff of the New York Jets from 1997-99. Belichick has a 5-2 record in head-to-head matchups with his former pupil, all of which came during Mangini's tenure with the Jets from 2006-08.
Belichick is 4-1 lifetime against the Browns, whom he coached for five seasons (1991-95) and guided to the franchise's last playoff win in 1994. Mangini has a 2-5 career mark versus New England.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
As usual, expect prolific scoring. The Patriots enter the weekend leading the NFL in points per game with an average of 29.3, in spite of a pedestrian 330.3 yards per game clip on offense that's only 19th-best in the league. Quarterback Brady is 4-0 lifetime against Cleveland and needs one touchdown to vault by Hall of Famer Jim Kelly into 17th place among the league's all-time throwers in that category. He's completed 147-of-225 passes for 1,602 yards, 12 touchdowns and a 96.6 rating in seven games this season. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been a worthwhile newcomer to a spotlight role and aims for a sixth consecutive game with at least one rushing touchdown. He established career-bests in both rushing yards (112) and touchdowns (two) in last week's 28-18 defeat of Minnesota, and the Patriots are 9-1 when he reaches the end zone. Buoyed by the departure of Randy Moss, wideout Brandon Tate had the first 100-yard receiving game of his career last week as well. New England's Aaron Hernandez is second among rookie tight ends with 388 receiving yards.
Rush defense has been a particular issue for the Browns through seven games, as opponents have racked up an average of 111.3 yards per week on the ground. Cleveland has surrendered 244.1 yards per game via the pass, leaving a 355.4 yards per game total that's only 22nd-best in the league. Getting into the end zone against that defense has been slightly more difficult. Cleveland's foes' total of 142 points, an average of just more than 20 a game, is 12th-best in the league. Rookie free safety T.J. Ward leads the Browns with 54 tackles (39 solo) in addition to his three pass deflections and one forced fumble. Meanwhile, linebackers Marcus Benard and Scott Fujita lead the team with 4 1/2 and 3 1/2, respectively, of the team's 13 sacks. Benard's total is already a career high. Elsewhere, rookie cornerback Joe Haden, selected seventh overall in this past April's draft, had his first career interception in the pre-bye victory over New Orleans. In that same triumph, David Bowens became just the third LB since 1970 (Ken Norton and Derrick Johnson) to return two picks for touchdowns in a game.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
McCoy is making the best of a not-so-special situation under center, completing 32-of-49 passes for 355 yards and a touchdown in two starts -- a victory over the Saints and a loss to Pittsburgh. He's posted a 76.5 passer rating and with veterans Delhomme and Wallace still hobbled, looks likely to make a third straight appearance. McCoy has provided something of a spark to a flaccid offensive unit that's managed just 292 yards per week (28th in the league). The Browns' point total of 118 is just 31st of 32 teams. McCoy's primary weapon in the backfield is burly running back Peyton Hillis, the Denver castoff who's gone for 460 yards and five touchdowns on the ground on 104 carries. He's also scored six overall touchdowns in seven games this season. Meanwhile, tight end Benjamin Watson has a team-high 30 catches for 336 yards and two scores. He was a first-round draft choice (32nd overall) by the Patriots in 2004 and spent six seasons with New England. Watson is third in Pats' history with 20 touchdowns as a tight end.
As good as the offense is, the Patriots' defense is just that suspect. New England has been gashed for weekly averages of 384 yards and 22 points per game, which place it 28th and 21st in the league in the two categories. Slightly more than 100 yards (101.6 ypg) have come on the ground, with an ugly 282.4 through the air, though that total is at least partially due to the Patriots holding consistent late-game leads and prompting attempted rallies. Five of seven opponents have reached at least 20 points, with Buffalo peaking out at 30 in Week 3. Only Miami (14 points in Week 4) and Minnesota (18 points in Week 8) have failed to get beyond the teens against New England. Linebacker Jerod Mayo has 85 tackles, including 58 solo stops, to lead the Patriots, along with a sack and a pass deflection. Tackle Mike Wright has four sacks and aims for a fifth straight game with at least one. In the backfield, cornerback Devin McCourty, a first-round pick in April's draft, goes for a third game in a row with an interception.
Regardless of what weapons he picks on any given Sunday, Brady is a slam-dunk starter. Tate went beyond 100 yards last week and could be poised to post another big yardage number, while fellow wideout Wes Welker records high-end catch numbers. Green-Ellis might get significant late-game work, assuming New England is again playing with a lead, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski always stays busy. While McCoy doesn't warrant his own start yet, both Hillis and Watson should at least get something of use against a porous Patriots unit.
Good teams occasionally lose these games, but more so than most coaches, Belichick has shown an ability to keep his players motivated for the ones others trip over. A road encounter in a hostile environment before a pair of matchups with formidable foes has all the fixings of "trap game," but it's hard to fathom a young quarterback like McCoy keeping it together long enough to accomplish the task.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 23, Browns 14
11/04 13:09:54 ET