3 things to watch for when Tom Brady returns, Patriots face Browns

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“Patriots by a million.”

If you live in New England, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard somebody say that this week.

Heck, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve said that this week.

And really, who can blame you?

Deflategate is officially dead. Tom Brady has made his return to the Patriots after a four-game suspension. That’s great news for the Patriots and awful news for their opponents.

The 39-year-old Brady doesn’t need added motivation. His commitment to winning and desire to remain at the top of his game has been noted, to say the least. But if you don’t think Deflategate has lit a fire under his you-know-what, you aren’t paying attention.

Queue the Browns, perhaps the most pathetic, depressing team in NFL history. As if a matchup against the Patriots isn’t tough enough as it is — though the Browns have actually competed with the Pats over the last two meetings — they now have to deal with a pissed off Brady on top of it all.

If Brady needs to ease back into playing shape for a week, could you ask for a better opponent to do that against? We’ll find out.

Brady to the rescue?

Brady is nothing more than a system quarterback, eh? Well, that system failed epically last Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, where the Patriots were shut out for the first time at home since 1993. It was in those 60 minutes of football that fans got a real taste of the dark, depressing state of football without Brady. Through four games the Patriots rank 19th in total offense, averaging 346.3 yards per game — worse than the Browns. And much of that offense has been on the ground, where behind LeGarrette Blount the Pats average 135.5 yards per game, third in the NFL. Expect the ball to fly more. Rob Gronkowski has not been unleashed yet, but you have to think he’s improving by the day, and with Brady back, the two could very well connect on their 65th touchdown. Gronkowski is two touchdowns away from tying the all-time Patriots touchdown record, held by Stanley Morgan.

What can the Browns do?

The RG3 experiment went just about exactly as planned — with him ending up on the injured reserve. Then backup Josh McCown broke his collarbone. That put rookie Cody Kessler in charge at the quarterback spot. Not ideal. Like the Pats, the Browns have leaned on their run game. Isaiah Crowell goes into Sunday’s game with three touchdowns, averaging 6.5 yards per carry and a little less than 100 yards per game. He drew high praise from Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia earlier this week. “I mean, you’re talking about one of the best backs in the league,” Patricia told reporters. “This guy is an explosive runner, he’s got good vision, he’s got really good feet and balance.” The Browns also use Duke Johnson Jr., someone Patricia says gives the Browns a good complement of backs. Of course, it’s tough to focus on the run when playing from behind.

Battle in the trenches

Bill Belichick said that “nothing was good enough” last week against the Bills. You won’t find anybody disagreeing with that. On one hand, the Bills only scored 16 points against the Patriots defense, but on the other, Tyrod Taylor finished 27-for-39 and the Bills converted on seven of 15 third-downs. Getting to the rookie Kessler and making him uncomfortable is going to be key for the Pats. Chris Long has arguably been the defensive MVP so far this season for New England. Jabaal Sheard will also be busy, and Rob Ninkovich is the “other” Patriot returning from suspension. But Cleveland has a strong offensive line, too. “Joe Thomas, [Joel] Bitonio — those two guys are about probably as good as we’ll see on one side of the line,” Belichick told reporters.

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