Pats try to clinch East vs. Gordon, Cleveland
New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (87) is hit by Houston Texans' Shiloh Keo, left, after making a catch during the third quarter of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, in Houston. (AP Photo/Patric Schneider)
New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski celebrates a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the first quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) looks for a receiver during a drills and stretching session before practice begins at the NFL football team's facility in Foxborough, Mass., Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013. The Patriots will face the Cleveland Browns on Sunday in Foxborough. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick listens to a reporter's question during a media availability at the NFL football teams facility in Foxborough, Mass., Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013. The Patriots will face the Cleveland Browns on Sunday in Foxborough. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
FOXBOROUGH — No matter who throws to him, Josh Gordon puts up big numbers.
Whether it’s Brian Hoyer, Jason Campbell or Brandon Weeden at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, Gordon produces. Against the New England Patriots on Sunday, he has a chance for his third straight game with more than 200 yards receiving.
“Our quarterbacks generally have a lot of confidence in him and we’ve given him a lot of opportunities to make those plays,” Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski said.
The second-year wideout has had to adapt as injuries depleted the quarterback ranks with Hoyer’s season-ending knee injury and concussions suffered by Campbell and Weeden. The Browns added Alex Tanney and Caleb Hanie the past two weeks, but Campbell was cleared for practice on Thursday and Chudzinski was “encouraged” by Campbell’s progress.
The Patriots (9-3) should have one of their easiest games of the season against the Browns (4-8), who have lost six of their last seven.
But New England coach Bill Belichick wasn’t taking chances. He got his players ready to face all the quarterbacks who might play.
“It’s a challenge when you really don’t know what quarterback you’re facing,” New England cornerback Aqib Talib said. “So it makes you have to work that much harder.”
And Talib likely will cover Gordon.
In one game, Gordon caught 10 passes for 146 yards and one touchdown from Hoyer. In another, he had five receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown from Campbell.
And in last Sunday’s 32-28 loss to Jacksonville, he had 10 catches for a team record 261 yards and two touchdowns from Weeden. That made him the first receiver in NFL history with back-to-back 200-yard games. The previous week, Campbell and Weeden both played and Gordon had 14 catches for 237 yards and one touchdown.
“It’s definitely not normal,” Gordon said of the quarterback changes.
Weeden began the season as Cleveland’s starter but was hurt in the second game. Hoyer, Tom Brady’s backup for three seasons before being released by the Patriots in training camp last year, took over. After Hoyer’s injury, Weeden started two games, then was benched. Campbell started the next four, then suffered a concussion. Weeden started last Sunday and was diagnosed with a concussion afterward.
“It is pretty rough to get a good rhythm with one quarterback when there have been so many changes,” Gordon said.
Five things to watch for in Browns-Patriots:
BACK TO THE PLAYOFFS: The Patriots can clinch the AFC East for the 10th time in 11 seasons if they beat Cleveland and Miami loses or ties at Pittsburgh, or if they tie and Miami loses.
“All that stuff will ultimately take care of itself,” Brady said. “There’s nothing we can do about January this week.”
The Patriots also can clinch a playoff berth if they win and Baltimore loses or ties against Minnesota or they tie and Baltimore loses.
GRONK’S ON A ROLL: Rob Gronkowski leads all tight ends with 37 catches and 560 yards since making his 2013 debut for New England in the seventh game of the season after back and forearm surgeries. He’s scored a touchdown in each of the last four games.
“He’s such a physical presence on the field, his size, his length, and his speed, his quickness,” Brady said. “It’d be like in other sports where you have great matchups in basketball or something like that, where it’s truly a one on one and you have a physical advantage.”
LONG DECEMBER: At 4-5, the Browns were in the playoff conversation. Three weeks and three losses later, they’re out.
Last week’s loss to Jacksonville all but ended Cleveland’s slim postseason hopes, extending the franchise’s playoff drought since 2002. Still, players insist there’s plenty to play for and they won’t quit over the final four games.
“We’re going to come and fight every week,” safety T.J. Ward said. “That sorry feeling, that’s for losers. We’re not losers at all. We’re not going to do that.”
GROUND GAME: The Browns might finally get their running game going against a weak run defense. They have the fifth-worst ground attack in the NFL, but the Patriots have allowed the second-most yards rushing. Willis McGahee leads the Browns with just 344 yards rushing, a 2.8 average and the team’s only two touchdowns on the ground.
SLOW STARTS: Look for the Patriots to emphasize getting off to a good start. They’ve trailed at halftime in four of their last five games and won three with second-half comebacks.
“It’s hard to keep playing from behind,” Brady said. “There’s no magic formula, just like there’s really no magic formula to what we’re doing in the second half. It’s just really the execution needs to be a lot better at the start of the game.”