Saturday, October 1, 2011

Another close one

As improbable as it seems, the Browns have maintained their role as the favored team for Sunday’s invasion of the Tennessee Titans.

Even though the Titans boast one of the National Football League best defenses. Even though the Browns haven’t exactly scared anyone this season. And even though the Titans have already knocked off the Baltimore Ravens in convincing fashion.

Yes, the Browns are still point-and-a-half favorites, which really means they are point-and-a-half dogs since they automatically get three points for home-field advantage. The line has barely moved since it opened.

The Titans are not frightening on offense, but when the defense takes over, the game does not get out of hand. The Tennessee goal line has been crossed only four times in three games this season.

In the season opener in Jacksonville, the Titans’ defense was on the field for nearly 40 minutes and yet, the Jaguars barely managed to scrape out a 16-14 victory. That defense will be the determining factor if the Titans hope to play beyond January.

That’s because the Tennessee offense, despite improved play at quarterback with Matt Hasselbeck, will not be the same the rest of the season after Pro Bowl wide receiver Kenny Britt mashed up his ACL last week.

Still, the Titans will be a tough team to beat Sunday. A very tough team.

The Browns have struggled on offense this season and that plays into the hands of Tennessee defensive coordinator Jerry Gray. His unit has permitted just 783 total yards this season.

The Browns have managed just 259 yards on the ground thus far and average a paltry 290 total yards a game. Colt McCoy is hitting on a meager 54% of his passes against three mediocre defenses. The fact the Browns won two of the first three games is a testament to how well the defense has played.

The Titans’ defense has surrendered only 43 points while winning two of its first three games. Only the Ravens at 40 points against are better.

Helping the Cleveland cause on offense will be the return of Peyton Hillis, back after his losing battle with a strep throat last weekend. That should enliven the offense somewhat, but the Titans have been stingy against the run, permitting just 90 yards a game.

Speaking of Hillis, he took some unwarranted criticism from some ex-Browns, who criticized him for not playing last week against Miami. The guess here is they have never had a strep throat.

First of all, strep is contagious. And it can make a victim violently ill. I know. I’ve had strep throat on two occasions and it wasn’t pretty either time. Swallowing is extremely difficult. You don’t want to eat. And the fever that usually accompanies it brings its victim to the precipice of upchucking.

So before they challenge Hillis’ manhood (and it sure seemed that way), perhaps they should do battle with the strep virus and see exactly how it can debilitate and weaken its victim.

Now then, back to football.

The key to winning this one for the Browns will be their ability to render running back Chris Johnson irrelevant. The Titans’ first three opponents were highly effective in stopping the Pro Bowler cold.

Holding out the entire exhibition season for a contract redo has backfired in a most serious manner for Johnson, who has gained 98 yards (not a misprint) in the Titans’ first three games. This from a runner who racked up 4,600 yards and 34 touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons.

After signing a new six-year, $56 million contract, he has averaged 2.1 yards on 46 carries and only three of those carries resulted in a first down. His longest run was for nine yards. He has been held to under 25 yards in two games. And he has yet to visit the end zone.

He’s too good a runner to be held down that long. One of these weeks, he’s going to bust loose and take some of the pressure off Hasselbeck, who has completed almost 70% of his passes, to get it done by himself.

That will be Sunday at CBS as the Browns attempt to go 3-1 for the first time since 2001, when they accomplished the feat in Butch Davis’ first season as head coach, knocking off Detroit, Jacksonville and San Diego after dropping the season opener to Seattle.

Because Tennessee doesn’t have the personality to dominate a game, this one will be close heading into the final quarter. With Britt gone, Browns cornerback Joe Haden will successfully shut down wide receiver Nate Washington, forcing Hasselbeck to rely on his ground game.

Both defenses will play solid football, but the Tennessee offense, emboldened by the return to form of Johnson, will steal one from the Browns in the late stages of the game with Rob Bironas hitting a field goal in the final two minutes.

McCoy will try to rally the Browns like he did last week against Miami, but fall short when Titans corner Cortland Finnegan intercepts his pass intended for Greg Little in the final minute.

So the Browns enter the bye week at 2-2. Make it:

Titans 19, Browns 16

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