BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are feeling it at the moment. Their defense is really rounding into shape, the offense is doing what it needs to do, and the Pats have won three straight to wedge themselves into the AFC playoff picture.

What a difference a few weeks can make. But still, there is are a few things we’d like to see the Patriots cut out of their Sunday repertoire.

For one, they really need to stop stinking at home. New England has a handful of impressive road wins, but it’s time to beat a good team on home turf.

This weekend against the Cleveland Browns would be a great time to start. Cleveland is 5-4 on the season, nipping at New England’s heels for the final Wild Card slot in the AFC. There is a lot of season left, but this game could have some major playoff ramifications two months from now.

So the Patriots need to view Sunday’s tilt as a must-win affair. A win on Sunday will confirm that the Patriots are, indeed, a pretty good football season in 2021.

Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the two teams kick off at Gillette Stadium.

Enough With The Giveaways

Taking care of the football is one of the most important things to do for someone playing under Bill Belichick. The Patriots offense did not get that memo this year.

The Patriots have given the ball away 14 times this season, which is tied for the sixth-most in the NFL. Only the Panthers, Texans, Jets, Dolphins and Chiefs (yes, the Chiefs lead the NFL with 19 giveaways) have more giveaways than New England.

Eight of the Patriots’ giveaways have led to points for the opposing team, while Damien Harris’ late fumble in Week 1 ended a comeback bid against Miami.

Last week in Carolina, Mac Jones fumbled after getting crushed by Brian Burns and threw his seventh interception of the season. Both of those led to Panthers field goals, which made the game a lot tighter than it had to be at that time.

At least the Browns aren’t exactly a takeaway-happy team. Their eight takeaways are near the bottom of the NFL. After a two-interception day last weekend, J.C. Jackson now owns as many INTs as the Browns on the season with five.

This weekend would be a great chance for the Patriots to turn in a clean turnover sheet for the first time all season*.

*Games against the Jets don’t count

And The Self-Inflicted Mistakes

There are times where we are left to wonder who are these undisciplined and mistake-prone Patriots. It has led to slow starts and missed opportunities, mostly on the offensive side.

Last week on their opening drive, the Patriots were hit with two penalties on back-to-back snaps. It set up a second-and-25 for Jones and company. Their second drive wasn’t much better, as it started with a delay of game, followed by a sack of Jones, to set up a second-and-19.

Those are not ideal situations for a rookie quarterback to find himself in.

And it got worse a few plays later when Hunter Henry was slapped with a false start when he jumped early to set up a second-and-15. The Patriots punted away both of their first two possessions last week.

Henry has been hit with three false starts this season. Isaiah Wynn leads the team with five penalties (four holds and a false start), and he had another that was declined. Patriots offensive linemen have been hit with 13 penalties overall.

After years of disciplined play, these false starts and delay of games out of a timeout or a change of possession are jarring to see. And when you mix in receivers bobbling balls that ultimately costs yards — in Jakobi Meyers’ case last weekend, the one yard he needed to keep a drive alive — the Patriots are making a lot of self-inflicted errors that is making life a lot more difficult than it has to be.

Like the turnovers, we’d like to see this irritating wrinkle ironed out of New England’s Sundays.

Keeping Mac Clean

Despite that fumble-sack last weekend, the Patriots have been doing a pretty decent job at protecting their quarterback. But while Jones hasn’t been getting sacked as much, he’s still been feeling the pressure, which is forcing him to make quicker decisions than he’d like. This weekend, he’s facing one of the better pass-rushing teams, and will likely have to do so with a depleted running back corps.

So it will be paramount to give the kid as much time as he needs when he drops back, which is no easy task against the Browns. They are second in the NFL with 27 sacks, with professional quarterback crusher Myles Garrett leading the charge with a dozen. Garrett has four of those sacks in the last three games, so Wynn is going to have to really win his 1-on-1s with Garrett this weekend if the offense wants any chance to operate how it wants.

Jones’ accuracy has dipped in recent weeks as the rookie hits a little midseason lull. He’s going to have to be at the top of his game this Sunday, forced to beat the Browns downfield with Cleveland likely shutting down New England’s reduced stable of running backs. The Pats’ ability to move the ball through the air will start with giving their rookie quarterback the time he needs to operate.

Just beware of Cleveland corner Denzel Ward, whose 99-yard pick-six started last weekend’s blowout win over the Bengals.

Make Mayfield Throw

The Browns’ situation at running back is also up in the air, with Nick Chubb and Demetric Felton’s status unknown following their positive COVID tests to start the week. That will put loads of pressure on Baker Mayfield.

Mayfield is coming off his best game of the season, completing 14 of his 21 passes for 218 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a blowout win over the Bengals. He only has eight touchdowns in his first nine games, but he has also thrown just three interceptions. The Patriots need to force more miscues from the QB this weekend, making him throw the ball when he doesn’t want to throw it. Rushing his decision-making is when Mayfield makes mistakes or gets sacked.

The Patriots defense is rounding into form as a game-changing unit. This weekend will pose another good test for the New England D.

Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Browns game on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots. Coverage begins at 11:30am with Patriots GameDay, kickoff is set for 1pm, and after the game switch to TV38 for full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!

CBSBoston.com Staff