Friday, October 8, 2010

A conundrum

The Atlanta Falcons arrive at Cleveland Browns Stadium Sunday with a 3-1 record. Not bad, say you? Lucky, say I.

The Falcons are the luckiest team in the National Football League. It's not even close. They should be dragging a 1-3 record into CBS Sunday against the Browns. They have won their last two games in the most improbable ways.

Two weeks ago, New Orleans place-kicker Garrett Hartley missed a chip-shot (29 yards) field goal in overtime, allowing Matt Bryant to subsequently kick the game-winner for Atlanta.

Last Sunday, the Falcons scrambled in the final minute to get into a position for a game-winning field goal against San Francisco, but 49ers cornerback Nate Clements, with a 14-13 lead, intercepted a Matt Ryan pass, then made a fatal mistake. He tried to return the pick for a touchdown instead of just falling down and forcing the Falcons to use all their timeouts. Falcons receiver Roddy White caught Clements from behind, stripped the ball, the Falcons recovered and went on to get a Bryant field goal for the victory.

Luck, it is said, is the residue of hard work. In this case, luck was anything but. Repeating: The Falcons should be 1-3 instead of leading their division. And now they meet another team down on their luck, most of it bad.

It is difficult to handicap the Browns-Falcons game. If you go by past history, the Browns should win with no problem. They have won 10 of the 12 meetings with the Falcons, including two since the return in 1999. And no one on the Browns knows the Falcons better than the man who is expected to start at quarterback.

Jake Delhomme has suited up against the Falcons in every one of his 12 NFL seasons. He has started 12 games against them -- he's 6-6 -- and has had moderate success from a statistical standpoint with 61.5% completion percentage, 16 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions. He has been sacked 18 times, lost four fumbles and thrown for 223 yards a game. But enough with the stats.

The Falcons present a different kind of problem for the Browns. Coach Mike Smith's team is predicated on ball control, featuring a strong running game, and a conservative passing game. Combine that with an opportunistic defense (eight picks in four games) and you understand why the Falcons are never out of a game.

In order for the Browns to have any shot at winning Sunday, they must stop the Atlanta ground game and put the game in Ryan's hands. Surprisingly, the Cleveland run defense has shown marked improvement this season, but it hasn't run into the likes of the Falcons' 1-2 punch of Michael Turner and Jason Snelling. They've lost only one fumble all season.

Ryan, who has been picked off just three times, rarely goes deep. It appears as though the Falcons' offensive philosophy features short- to medium-range passes with White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez as this chief targets. At least the Browns' secondary, burned so often on the deep pass this season, won't have to worry this week.

The Atlanta defense, which features three smallish but very active linebackers, relies heavily on the front four to pressure the quarterback. Key matchup there features a battle between Falcons defensive end John Abraham and Cleveland offensive tackle Joe Thomas, who has not performed nearly as well thus far as he did in his first three seasons.

The big Browns questions surrounding this game:

is Delhomme healthy enough to play a majority of the game?

Can Peyton Hillis sustain his hell-bent style of running for a third straight week?

Who is the wide receiver du jour? Two weeks ago, it was Joshua Cribbs. Last week, it was Chansi Stuckey. Ergo, this week it'll be Mo Massaquoi. Or will it?

Can the Browns' run D make it three straight strong performances?

How many blitzes will defensive coordinator Rob Ryan dial up to force Ryan to throw before he wants?

Will the Falcons' good-luck streak finally come to a conclusion?

It's so easy to pick against the Browns, whose roster is not nearly as talented as Atlanta's. They have no advantage over the Falcons in any area.

But . . .

Something tells me that somewhere along the way, the Browns somehow will make up at least one of those two losses to open the season and this very well could be the one. It certainly won't be against the Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints or New England Patriots in games six through eight.

So . . . with fingers crossed, make it:

Browns 16, Falcons 14

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