By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — Forty-five to seven. Forty-freaking-five. To. Seven.
Any way you slice that, it is a first-class, no-doubt-about it thumping. A whooping. A complete and total blowout.
That’s what the Patriots earned on Sunday, forcing the Browns to mentally check out before the third quarter even came to an end. When the final whistle mercifully sounded, it was done: 45-7. Gross.
Considering the way it ended, it would be ludicrous to say that the game could have gone differently. Yet … entertain this notion.
The Patriots got run over on the opening drive. D’Ernest Johnson ran wild. Carl Davis committed a penalty. Jalen Mills got hurt. Adrian Phillips let up a touchdown on fourth-and-goal. It wasn’t an encouraging start for the home team.
The Patriots then gained possession and gave the ball twice to Rhamondre Stevenson; he gained just two yards. Facing a third-and-8, the Patriots were at real risk of punting the ball back to Cleveland’s offense after just a minute of possession. It was a tricky spot.
But rookie QB Mac Jones took a shotgun snap, recognized a zone defense, and calmly threw to Hunter Henry up the right seam for a gain of 12 yards and a fresh set of downs.
Two more runs, four more yards, another third down. On this third-and-6, Jakobi Meyers lined up in the right slot and ran a simple slant against some soft coverage. Jones delivered a high pass, Meyers hauled it in despite one defender wrapping him up from behind and another delivering a free shot from in front of him. It went for a gain of seven, and the drive stayed alive.
On the next snap, though, Shaq Mason was flagged for holding, which negated a six-yard run by Stevenson. Facing a first-and-20 at their own 32-yard line, the Patriots were imperiled once again. But Kendrick Bourne received a pitch on a reverse play, whipping around the left end and eventually falling forward through two defenders for a gain of 15. The drive continued.
After some chunk gains, the Patriots were in business, facing a second-and-6 from the Cleveland 16. Jones was then sacked, smashed between two Browns defenders — Myles Garrett and Malik Jackson — for a loss of seven. That brought up a third-and-13 at the Cleveland 23-yard line. It felt like settling for a field goal was inevitable. And the play call — a screen pass to Brandon Bolden — indicated that the coaching staff might have been OK with that result.
But the players weren’t. David Andrews, Ted Karras and Shaq Mason built a wall for Bolden. Jakobi Meyers blocked up the field. Bolden followed those blocks and went untouched for 18 yards, eventually getting brought down after a 20-yard gain … and a new set of downs.
Stevenson was stuffed on the following play, but Jones then lofted a perfect pass to the back corner of the end zone. Hunter Henry hauled it in. Moments later, Nick Folk’s PAT tied the game at 7-7. And the Patriots dominated from that point forward.
.@Hunter_Henry84 for SIX.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) November 14, 2021
It was a 15-play, 83-yard drive (which actually required 93 yards, due to the penalty). It featured three third-down conversions, with an average yardage of nine yards to go on those third downs. The quarterback was 6-for-6 for 55 yards and a TD. The offense gained 45 rushing yards.
Perhaps it all stands out a bit less after the 45-7 final score. The Browns’ offense went into hibernation after that, and the defense got worked up and down the field. Mac Jones was sizzling. Maybe all of that was inevitable.
But these games can take shape in different ways. A three-and-out following the Browns’ touchdown drive, and the Patriots are at risk of falling behind by two scores. Without Jonnu Smith, without Damien Harris, it can’t be known how they would’ve responded to that.
Yet because of the execution on these early third downs, the question never needed to be answered.
So with the Patriots now 6-4, winners of four straight, owners of a plus-98 point differential, facing a very winnable Thursday night game that could lift them to three games over .500 for the first time in two years, it is simply worthwhile to remember those early critical moments. The final score may state otherwise, but they were significant.