FOXBORO, Mass. (AP)—Mike Vrabel and the New England defense baffled Cleveland’s quarterbacks, then knocked them to the ground.
Vrabel’s three sacks helped Adam Vinatieri’s three field goals stand up in the Patriots’ 9-3 win over the Browns on Sunday, stretch New England’s winning streak to four games.
New England (6-2) leads the AFC East and stopped a Cleveland offense with Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb playing behind a makeshift offensive line. For the second time in three games, the Patriots didn’t allow a touchdown.
“One week it’s the line, one week it’s the secondary,” Vrabel said. “It just happened to be a day for me to take advantage.”
The game didn’t provide much excitement, but Vrabel was energized. He missed three games with a broken right arm before playing sparingly a week earlier in a 19-13 victory over Miami.
The Browns (3-5) played without three injured offensive linemen who figured to start when the season began. And Holcomb didn’t start because he wasn’t healthy enough to practice fully. Holcomb had missed three games with a broken right leg before taking over for an ineffective Couch a week earlier.
But when Couch left with a sprained thumb midway through the second quarter, Holcomb had to play.
“It’s not easy for anybody to take 25 to 30 percent (of the practice snaps) when you’re getting ready for someone you assume is going to be complicated defensively,” Browns coach Butch Davis said. “You’ve got to give one guy the lion’s share of the work, which we did.”
And Vrabel took advantage.
“We worked all week on just trying to confuse whatever quarterback was in the game,” he said.
One bright spot for Cleveland was the 18 tackles, 16 unassisted, by linebacker Ben Taylor.
“You have to feel like if you can hold people to three field goals, you put yourself in a position to try and win the game,” Davis said.
The Patriots wouldn’t let them, solidifying their status as the AFC East leader.
“Six wins, that’s not going to get anything,” New England coach Bill Belichick said.
New England held the Browns to 203 yards and ended their last chance when Ty Law intercepted at the New England 25 with 51 seconds left.
“Just trying to make a play,” Holcomb said. “Didn’t happen.”
The Browns reached New England territory only once, but the Patriots didn’t do much with their chances. On four trips inside the red zone, they came away with three field goals.
“Some of these weeks were going to have to score more points,” quarterback Tom Brady said.
Cleveland’s 8-3 record in its previous 11 road games didn’t help it.
“The crowd is loud and not everyone is on the same page,” Browns wide receiver Kevin Johnson said. “The crowd realizes this and they get even louder.”
That was Holcomb’s first series after Couch left with a sprained right thumb. X-rays were negative, but Couch didn’t return. His hand was heavily wrapped after the game. The Browns are off next weekend.
One week earlier, Holcomb came in after Couch threw two interceptions and trailed San Diego 23-6 in the third quarter. The Browns came back, but lost 26-20. Holcomb wasn’t at full strength Sunday, so Couch got the start until he was injured.
The Patriots took a 3-0 lead on Vinatieri’s 27-yard field goal on their first drive. He added a 28-yarder in the third quarter and a 38-yarder with 2:05 left in the game.
The Patriots won without a touchdown because Couch and Holcomb struggled. Couch went 7-for-11 for 40 yards, while Holcomb was 15-for-25 for 115 yards.
“They were taking away the big-play opportunities,” Couch said. “They’re a confusing team.”
Vrabel sacked both, getting to Couch once and Holcomb twice. Vrabel’s last sack came midway through the fourth quarter when he threw Holcomb for an 8-yard loss at the Browns 18. That forced a punt that led to Vinatieri’s last field goal.
Patriots tight end Daniel Graham had career highs of seven catches for 110 yards. … Browns tight end Steve Heiden also had career highs with six catches for 34 yards. … Vrabel was the first Patriot with three sacks in agame since Henry Thomas on Dec. 13, 1998 at St. Louis.