Joon Han, Flickr
It was actually during the later game on NBC that the 'avalanche' term was used, in the broadcast booth, to describe the way the Cowboys were being buried by a relentless attack from the Packers. But it was an apt description for what the Patriots ran into against the Browns yesterday, too.
This began as a game dense with storylines, from erstwhile Bill Belichick protege Eric Mangini once again lined up against his former boss; to former Patriots tight end Daniel Graham appearing on the field in brown and orange; to the Browns defensive coordinator, seen fist-pumping on the sidelines, once New England's linebackers coach; to the location in Cleveland, where then-head coach Belichick first hired Mangini as an assistant, and the pair's fraught history began.
As part of the Belichick diaspora, Mangini displays two major traits in common with his former mentor: the permanently furrowed brow while pacing on the sidelines; and, yesterday, more than in any other Mangenius Bowl I've seen yet, a diabolically clever way of winning a football game against a favored opponent.
Case in point: a fourth and 1 (really more like a fourth and six inches) with nine minutes to go in the first quarter and the Browns already ahead 10-0. Mangini, in true Belichickian fashion, went for it anyway.
Clearly there are limits to how much credit can be given to a head coach over the efforts of the players who execute on the field, but in this instance, the Browns made this conversion before the ball was even snapped. The offense began in a runningback formation, and then, as the play clock ticked down, suddenly spread the field. Before the Pats defense could even get themselves fully reset, the Browns pulled a quarterback sneak, easily covering the required ground.
This was a play where you could feel Mangini's touch on the field -- and Belichick's influence on Mangini.
In fact, I would argue that this game, particularly the first half, was the showdown that has long been anticipated between these two coaches. I don't remember Pats vs. Jets with Mangini at the helm being quite as precise or cerebral a series of contests. This was the first time it felt like the two highly intelligent coaches pitted their considerable wits, rather than their bitter emotions, against one another. And even though I'm a Patriots fan, plays like that fourth-and-inches were jaw-dropping to watch.
I do wish the Patriots had found a way not to look quite so back on their heels against the young padawan's game plans, and there was, of course, as much blame to go around with the Pats as there was credit due to the Browns yesterday.
First on the blame list among the players was a thoroughly neutralized Tom Brady. Even with Logan Mankins back at left guard, Brady was hurried, he was sacked, and frankly, sometimes his throws just plain sucked.
Some more blame is to be laid at the feet of Rob Gronkowski, who dropped several catchable passes, including a touchdown attempt that deflected off Gronkowski's hands and into those of a leaping Aaron Hernandez in the back of the end zone -- after that, Gronkowski seemed to figuratively pass the torch to Hernandez as well.
Brady also couldn't turn to the run for help as the Browns had effectively neutralized last week's ground-game hero, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, by the time the second quarter began. This was a team that had done its film study (once again, the touch of Belichick via Mangini), and the New England offense never seemed able to turn its engine over. They were stuck.
Where the defense is concerned, the physical running style of the Browns' Peyton (!!) Hillis wore them down; there were times that Hillis literally looked unstoppable, even with a crowd of Patriots defenders hanging off of him. Even when on the ground and buried under Patriots linemen, he would continue crawling through, forcing the ball forward like a snake under a pile of leaves.
Worse, also waiting behind the line of scrimmage for Cleveland, every time another Patriots 3-and-out sent the defense back out between the lines, was quarterback Colt McCoy. The former darling of the NCAA has made his young career on making plays under pressure and on the run. With mild pressure and flushing him from the pocket about all the Patriots could do to harass McCoy, time after time, he found a receiver and burned them downfield with impunity.
Like I said, there are limits to how much credit can be given to a head coach. But step back, put it all together, and what you see is that in every phase of the game, the Browns looked like the more prepared, more disciplined, and more confident team yesterday. Not something we're used to as Belichick-era Patriots fans -- at least, not from the opposing sideline.
The brutality for the Patriots continued well into the later quarters, with the ultimate low point probably represented by Wes Welker having to fill in at kicker, due to an injury to Stephen Gostkowski.
But this game was really won in those early minutes of the first quarter, when the Browns came out swinging from the very first tick of the clock, and the Patriots still seemed to be waking up.
That's what touched off the avalanche, and the avalanche only grew.