CLEVELAND — When the scoreboard clock finally showed zeros, Bill Belichick walked slowly across the torn-up field to meet Cleveland’s coach, his protege and estranged friend, amid a swarm of players and photographers.
Belichick found Eric Mangini, looked him in the eye and offered his hand.
It was time to concede defeat, one as thorough as any in recent memory.
“I congratulated him,” Belichick said.
It’s all he could do.
On this day, the Browns were better — a lot better.
Rookie quarterback Colt McCoy scrambled for a touchdown and didn’t make any mistakes, Peyton Hillis ran for a career-high 184 yards and two TDs and the vastly improved Browns, using a little trickery and a ton of offensive imagination, pounded the Patriots 34-14 on Sunday.
Two weeks after stunning New Orleans, the Browns (3-5) pulled off another shocker. Well rested after their bye week, they ended New England’s five-game winning streak and did it decisively, outplaying one of the NFL’s top teams for 60 minutes.
This was no fluke. The Patriots (6-2) were battered, baffled and beaten badly.
“We know we can beat anybody,” Browns wide receiver Joshua Cribbs said. “If you beat these supposedly best two teams in the league, it gives us confidence there isn’t one team in this league that we don’t think we can beat.”
It was particularly satisfying for Mangini, whose relationship with Belichick was damaged years ago when he left New England’s staff to coach the Jets and by the infamous “Spygate” episode. The two men ignored each other during pregame warmups, but had to meet afterward.
Mangini was asked what his mentor said.
“‘Good game.’ We were making plans for the summer,” he joked.
Mangini had good reason to smile. He and his staff, many of whom worked in New England under Belichick, outschemed the Patriots in every facet. The Browns had an overwhelming advantage on offense, defense and special teams. Cleveland sprang a pop-up kickoff to set up its first touchdown and the Browns scored their second TD on a gadget play they knew would work.
But it wasn’t all smoke and mirrors. The Browns bullied the Patriots, using Hillis to run the ball down their throats and flustering quarterback Tom Brady with a variety of fronts and coverages.
“This sends a message that what happened last game against New Orleans was not a fluke,” said Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas, who opened holes as the Browns rushed for a season-high 230 yards. “We’re a good team. We’re starting to find our identity.”
Hillis, healthy at last after being slowed by a thigh injury, scored on a 2-yard run in the first, and then put the Patriots away with a 35-yard burst late to make it 34-14. He carried 29 times, picking up all 60 yards on Cleveland’s game-sealing drive.
Brady and the Patriots have had better days.
New England’s star went 19 of 36 for 224 yards and two TDs to rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez. However, Brady lost for the first time in five career starts against the Browns, who jumped to an early 10-0 lead and led by 17 entering the fourth.
Brady was hindered by several drops and a crucial fumble by tight end Rob Gronkowski just before halftime, when the Patriots, who came in averaging a league-leading 29 points per game, blew a chance to cut into Cleveland’s 10-point lead.
“We were out of sync all day,” Brady said. “It was not a good day at all. As an offense, we didn’t do much to advance the ball, and that includes the quarterback. If we play like we played today we are not going to beat anybody.”
The Patriots had other issues. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski suffered a thigh injury, forcing Belichick to use receiver Wes Welker to kick an extra point in the fourth. If it had been closer, Welker may have had to try a late field goal.
The Browns, though, never let the Patriots in it.
For Mangini, the lopsided win over a quality opponent was further proof his system may be taking hold in his second season with Cleveland. There were still more than two minutes left when he was showered with Gatorade. Soaked to the skin, he smiled as his players celebrated behind him.
“It feels great,” he said. “It’s special and it’s special because of our guys, because of our team, not because of their team, because of our team.”
McCoy, making his third straight start, had his best game. He completed 14 of 19 passes for 174 yards, and his TD run in the third gave the Browns a 24-7 lead. With no receivers open, McCoy tucked the ball and sprinted for the left corner.
“I felt real slow,” said McCoy, who covered the final few yards with a headfirst dive.
Mangini has been reluctant to name McCoy his starter for the rest of the season, and he dodged that question again.
“Can we really enjoy this moment right here?” he joked. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday and Saturday.”
McCoy is 2-1 as a starter with wins over Brady and Drew Brees.
Phil Dawson kicked field goals of 38 and 37 yards for the Browns, who after pulling off three trick plays two weeks ago to upset the defending Super Bowl champs, used some slight of hand to open a 17-7 lead.
On first down at the New England 11, Cribbs took the snap at quarterback and handed the ball to Chansi Stuckey, who lined up directly behind Cleveland’s right guard. Stuckey took off toward the left corner, and by the time the fooled Patriots reacted, it was too late to catch the Browns’ wide receiver, who beat them to the orange pylon.
It wasn’t the only time the Patriots didn’t have an answer.
“They did everything better than we did,” Belichick said. “In every single aspect, they clearly were the better team. We have a lot of work to do.”
Notes: Belichick said Gotkowski’s leg tightened up. He will be re-evaluated Monday. … Mangini improved to 3-5 vs. Belichick. … Mangini is also 4-1 in his career after a bye week. … The Browns recorded season-highs in points, first downs (22), total yards (404) and time of possession (38:08).