Rypien brought with him a refreshing, if understandable, humility. "There were all sorts of rumors about my arm being shot, about my skills being diminished," he says. "I knew that wasn't true, but you have to be a man and face the fact that, if that's the way people perceive you, maybe your days as a starter are over. I came here to be a backup quarterback. That's my role, and I accept it. It doesn't hurt my pride."
When Testaverde suffered a concussion against the Broncos the week before the game against New England, Rypien got his first start as a Brown. An immediate obstacle on Sunday was the weather—intermittent showers, 20-mph winds, with gusts up to 40. Given the conditions, Rypien's passing numbers were respectable: 14 of 28 for 164 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Bledsoe, who completed 20 of 43 passes for only 166 yards and no touchdowns, didn't handle the weather as well. He threw four interceptions.
The wind, according to Cleveland wideout Keenan McCardell, "made the ball do funny little tricks. One time you'd get a slow curve, another time a hard slider." Rypien's way of coping with the gusts was to keep the ball low. "Get it up high and it will sail on you," he said after the victory, "and that's when they pick it off."
It was a modest approach, a don't-screw-it-up strategy, which more or less typified the Browns' offense. Their defense has been sound, their special teams spectacular—they have scored three touchdowns and have not given up one. It figures. Belichick was a special teams coach for seven years with the Detroit Lions, the Broncos and the New York Giants, and his offensive coordinator, Steve Crosby, held the same job with the Miami Dolphins and the Patriots for five years. It's something they take very seriously.
Yet even as Cleveland was running up its impressive record, it did not build much of an offensive identity. The Browns would talk about establishing a running game, and then on second-and-six they would send the wideouts in. They would mention how they had to get the ball to their flashy little halfback, Eric Metcalf, 20 times a game, and then, when you looked at the stats after a game, you would see that Metcalf had seven or eight carries and a couple of receptions. Testaverde put up some decent numbers for a while, but as his receiving corps kept going down with injuries, so did his yardage.
The one constant in the attack was a 5'11", 225-pound wrecking ball of a fullback, Leroy Hoard. It seemed that every time Cleveland needed that one big drive, Hoard was the guy who broke the tackles and got the first downs. "He plays so hard, and he's so damn physical," Belichick says, "giving it that second and third effort, that it's hard for him to do it on every play. You have to monitor his carries."
"I played with him at Michigan," says Brown center Steve Everitt. "I've seen him just take over games. I'd like to see him get the ball 20 to 25 times."
And on Sunday, despite having come into the game with a badly bruised right biceps, that's exactly what Hoard did—21 carries for 123 yards, both career highs, and two catches for 12 yards, one of which, early in the fourth quarter, went for the Browns' only touchdown. "Tired? Yeah, I guess so," he said afterward. "But it's really no big deal. It's just good for me to show people that, given the opportunity, I'll do the job."
The weather conditions were just right for a brawl in the trenches, which was fine with Patriot coach Bill Parcells. He has wanted to get a running game going all year but has had little success. On Sunday the hammer finally started to fall, as 248-pound Marion Butts (25 carries, 86 yards) banged away behind 230-pound fullback Kevin Turner. The Brown defense, which had been on the field for an average of 72 snaps over the previous four games, came into this game heavy-legged, and the absence of tackle Michael Dean Perry, who injured his shoulder against Denver, cut into the defensive line rotation.
Cleveland clung to a 3-0 lead at the half, but its defense sealed the win in the last two quarters. The Browns mustered a goal line stand in the third period—the Pats had a first down at the five and wound up with a field goal—and then stopped New England on downs on the Pats' next possession. Rypien then immediately took Cleveland on an 80-yard drive that ended with Hoard's touchdown. Just over three minutes later, after Brown cornerback Tim Jacobs picked off a Bledsoe pass at the New England 38, Matt Stover kicked a 41-yard field goal for a 13-3 Cleveland lead.