The New England Patriots are hoping to get their prolific offense going much sooner in games as they pursue the AFC’s top seed.
The Patriots may have a good chance to do that Sunday against a team giving up plenty of first-half points, and they could clinch a fifth straight AFC East title as they host record-breaking Josh Gordon and the Cleveland Browns.
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New England (9-3) has a three-game lead on Miami in the East and will wrap up the division with a victory Sunday along with a loss or tie by the Dolphins in Pittsburgh. The Patriots trail Denver by one game for the best record in the conference but own the tiebreaker thanks to their 34-31 overtime win over the Broncos on Nov. 24.
After falling behind 24-0 at the half in that contest, New England trailed by double digits after the first 30 minutes last Sunday in Houston before rallying to beat the NFL-worst Texans 34-31.
The Patriots, outscored 34-7 in the first quarter of their past three games, have been losing at halftime in four of the last five. They’ve outscored opponents 133-56 after intermission over that span, and scored on each of their first five possessions of the second half in their last two.
“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,'” said Tom Brady, who has completed 73.0 percent of his passes for an average of 233 yards in the second half of his last three games.
Brady put up big numbers in the last two comeback victories, throwing for 715 yards with five touchdowns and one interception. While Brady has thrown for seven scores and five INTs in six road games, he has 12 TDs and three picks at home as the Patriots have gone 6-0.
Julian Edelman has provided a spark with 18 catches for 211 yards and two scores in the last two games, and Rob Gronkowski has hauled in a touchdown pass in four straight while totaling 419 yards.
“We’ve got to start playing better football in the first half, and come out with a better start, and move the ball better,” said Gronkowski, who had six catches for 127 yards last week.
The Patriots will try to make that happen against a Cleveland team that has fallen behind by a 64-30 margin in the first half and allowed a total of 100 points during its three-game losing streak. The last six opponents have averaged 18.5 first-half points.
Trailing 20-14 at halftime against visiting Jacksonville last Sunday, the Browns took a 28-25 lead with 3:55 remaining on Gordon’s 95-yard touchdown grab from Brandon Weeden. However, Cecil Shorts beat standout cornerback Joe Haden for a 20-yard TD catch with 40 seconds left to give the Jaguars a 32-28 victory.
Gordon had two touchdowns among his 10 catches for a team-record 261 yards, bettering his own mark of 237 from the previous week against Pittsburgh. Besides becoming the first player with consecutive 200-yard games, Gordon’s 498 yards in two games and 623 in three are both league records.
“You’re seeing the product of his hard work and his commitment to what he’s been doing,” coach Rob Chudzinski said. “It’s no surprise to me.”
Gordon could have a tough time continuing his hot streak given New England’s 10th-ranked pass defense (224.0 yards per game) as well as limited practice time this week with Cleveland’s starting quarterback.
Jason Campbell wasn’t named the starter until Friday, a day after he was finally cleared to practice following a concussion. Brandon Weeden started in his place last Sunday, throwing for a career-high 370 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, but was diagnosed with a concussion following the loss.
Campbell had started the previous four games, throwing for six TDs and three INTs, and led the Browns (4-8) to their only win in the past two months – against Baltimore on Nov. 3.
With Weeden likely out, if Campbell is knocked out of this game, Cleveland would either turn to a quarterback who has never thrown a regular-season NFL pass or one who hasn’t attempted one since 2011.
Alex Tanney, who has no regular-season experience, was signed off Dallas’ practice squad last week and Caleb Hanie was added Tuesday. Hanie, released by Baltimore in August, spent four years backing up Jay Cutler in Chicago and was third on Denver’s depth chart last season.
The Browns have lost five straight in Foxborough dating to Oct. 25, 1992, but they upset the Patriots 34-14 in 2010 in the teams’ last meeting as Brady was held to 19 of 36 for 224 yards.