THE LAST three weeks have made for some thrilling theater. First came a last-ditch effort to drive for the winning score that wound up with a controversial non-call in the end zone. Then came a 24-point comeback that led to an overtime victory over the conference's best team. Then came a contest in which victory required a couple of 53-yard, fourth-quarter field goals.
But Patriots fans would probably be OK if today was void of drama, particularly if it meant their team got back to basics in advancing its record to 10-3 on the season.
Although New England has won two of those last three tilts, and four of five overall, it hasn't struggled to sustain its sharpness in spite of its end-result success. Spectacular spurts have saved them, but in the past couple weeks in particular, the Patriots have tackled poorly, they haven't protected the football, they've started sluggishly, they've given up too many big plays - whether classifying those according to yards or circumstances.
Some of that is certainly attributable to the opponents they've faced of late, which have included the playoff-bound Panthers and Broncos, as well as a Texans team that has badly underachieved but isn't bereft of talent.
Today, though, it's the Browns coming to Gillette Stadium. They are 4-8. They have lost three straight and six of seven. They weren't sure who they'd be starting at quarterback until Friday, when they settled on Jason Campbell. They are a team the Patriots should beat.
So let's see New England go out and do that. No unnecessary drama, no comeback required. Let's see the Patriots go out and handle their business in a way that makes obvious who in this matchup is building toward the postseason and who is already building toward next year.
"We've got to have great execution for the entire game. That's the most important thing," Pats quarterback Tom Brady said this week. "We've played some really good teams, really good defenses that have put a lot of pressure on us, so it's hard sometimes to play 60 good minutes of football, but we've got to start doing that at some point. We've had some ups and downs, but we've got to put together a good game."
This isn't to say the Patriots need to blow the Browns away early - or blow them out at all. In fact, that may be an unfair expectation, given that Cleveland's defense ranks as the NFL's fourth-stingiest in terms of yardage allowed (306.8 per game), and that it has beaten the playoff hopefuls hailing from Cincinnati and Baltimore, and hung tough against Kansas City.
More important than the margin of victory today is the manner in which it is delivered, because this represents a chance for the Patriots to prove they're capable of playing the type of crisp, clean, fundamentally flawless football that becomes immensely helpful to the process in the postseason.
That brand of ball has been a hallmark of New England's style of play for years, particularly in November and December, when Bill Belichick's teams tend to play their best - but thus far the Pats' have themselves experienced some of the sloppiness for which they typically punish their opponents.
The Patriots have turned the ball over in eight straight games, and with six in their past three games, they have one more giveaway than takeaway since their bye week. Tackling has been an issue, particularly at the line of scrimmage, and as a result they've allowed 845 rushing yards over the past six games.
Last week they let the Texans score three rushing touchdowns, one of which covered 20 yards, and that came in addition to four passes that picked up at least 27 yards. Those big chunks helped put Houston in position to see three-, five-, and seven-play drives cover at least half the field before finishing in the end zone, while the Patriots' offense again struggled early to move the ball in any fashion.
New England has now totaled just 10 points over the first two quarters of its previous three games - making a good start one of its stated objectives for today's game. But there's no need to stop there. It's about time this team puts together a solid performance that spans the entire 60 minutes, which is something they've yet to do this season, and something that will continue to raise questions about their legitimacy as contenders until they do.
Today they have an opportunity to answer those questions, even if it is against a club struggling as mightily as Cleveland is. Today isn't about the Browns. It's about the Patriots.
And, specifically, about getting back to the Patriots' way of playing football.
UNDERRATED: Josh Gordon. He's not a household name, but he is the first NFL receiver to gain at least 200 receiving yards in consecutive contests. He topped his 237 yards in Week 12 with 261 last week, and at 19.5 yards per catch this season, he will be the Patriots' top priority in their efforts to prevent big plays today.
OVERRATED: Willis McGahee. After enjoying something of a career resurgence in Denver the past couple of seasons, he's averaging just 2.8 yards per carry this season with the Browns. He did rack up 57 yards and a score last week, but generally speaking Cleveland's 28th-ranked rushing attack is one the Patriots should handle.
KEEP AN EYE ON.: The scoreboard. The Patriots can wrap up the AFC East championship if they beat Cleveland and Miami loses at Pittsburgh. New England fans will also want to keep an eye on what's happening in Cincinnati, where the Bengals host the Colts. Both teams are 8-4, and each is leading its division, so (barring a tie) one of them will fall two games back of the No. 2 seed with three games to play, if the Patriots can beat the Browns. KEY MATCHUP: Josh McDaniels vs. Ray Horton. Horton is now the Browns' defensive coordinator, but last year he held that positioned with the Cardinals when they beat the Patriots at Gillette. He claimed after that win to know what was coming - so it'll be up to McDaniels, and Brady, to be less predictable today.
STAT OF THE WEEK: After completing better than 70 percent of his passes the past four games, Brady's completion percentage is up to 60.72 percent for the season. Last time he won a Super Bowl, in 2004, Brady finished the regular season at 60.76 percent.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.