Friday, October 28, 2011

Now it gets tougher

OK, boys and girls, are we ready for the rout? Er, are we ready for what the rest of the season might look like?

Because if you take a real close look at what remains on the Browns’ schedule, you’ll no doubt notice that of the 10 remaining games, only three are against teams with losing records.

Outside of winless St. Louis, 2-5 Jacksonville and 1-5 Arizona, the rest of the schedule is fraught with teams at or near the upper crust of the National Football League. That includes five games with the rest of their much more talented brethren in the AFC North. The easy part of the schedule is now history.

Starting Sunday in San Francisco, Cleveland plays seven of its remaining games against teams with winning records. Combined, they are 31-14. And all are either leading their respective divisions or challenging for the lead.

If the Browns harbor any hope of finishing at or near .500, they’re going to have to play spectacular, if not perfect, football from now on. That would be a virtual impossibility given how they have played thus far. On offense, that is. No quarrel with the defense. So far.

Cleveland stands at 3-3, but it’s an extremely shaky 3-3. The victories have come at the expense of the Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins and Seattle Seahawks. Three teams with a combined record of 3-17.

But if recent rivalry history is any indicator, the Browns do have a shot at upsetting the 49ers on the second of their three trips west this season. Cleveland owns the last three victories in the series – 1993, 2003 and 2007.

The most memorable of those was the 1993 game, a Monday night affair in week two that saw the Browns win, 23-13, in Bill Belichick’s third season as head coach. Six weeks later, Belichick fired quarterback Bernie Kosar.

The 49ers, like the Browns, have fallen on hard times throughout much of the first decade of the 21st century. They haven’t had a winning season since 2002, racking up a 46-82 record in the last eight seasons. The Browns are 43-85 over the same span.

But unlike the Browns, who continue to wallow as they struggle to attain some form of respectability, the 49ers seem to have recaptured some of the luster of the Bill Walsh-George Seifert years.

Unlike the Browns, they went out and hired a high profile, energetic and extremely successful college coach who played the game on the professional level and did not have to learn the nuances of the NFL.

Jim Harbaugh came in with the reputation of being a no-nonsense guy who has known nothing but success everywhere he has coached. Some NFL observers believed, however, it would take the former Michigan quarterback a while to adjust. It has taken him six games.

That the 49ers, coming off their bye week, are 5-1 is no accident. Harbaugh has his men convinced this is not an aberration. They are 3-0 on the road with victories in Detroit, Philadelphia and Cincinnati, all tough venues.

Outside of perhaps running back Frank Gore, the Niners do not overwhelm you with their offensive statistics. But it’s very obvious looking at those stats to determine exactly what you’re going to get when you face San Francisco.

It’s going to be large doses of Gore running behind a solid run-blocking line or cerebral quarterback Alex Smith throwing mostly to tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, who own six (three each) of Smith’s eight touchdown passes. And the Browns have had problems all season covering tight ends.

However, the 49ers’ offensive line has difficulty protecting Smith when he drops back to pass. He has been leveled 16 times, a number the improved Cleveland pass rush hopes to elevate significantly.

Where the Browns will encounter problems is on offense, the club’s Achilles’ heel. The 49ers’ front seven – they play a very active 3-4 scheme – has 16 sacks of their own and put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to steal eight of their passes. Of those 16 sacks, defensive end Justin Smith and rookie linebacker Aldon Smith, a situational pass rusher, own 10.

In order to beat this defense, the Browns must throw the ball. They will not be able to run against a front seven that allows just 73 yards a game and has yet to yield a rushing touchdown.

If Pat Shurmur insists on running the ball as often and as unsuccessfully as he did in last Sunday’s victory over Seattle, Colt McCoy will spend most of the afternoon looking for his receivers.

As for special teams, the 49ers own a decided edge, mainly because Brad Seely is their coach. Seely, one of the best special teams coaches in the league, now has Ted Ginn Jr., the former Glenville High School and Ohio State blur, as his prize pupil. And Ginn has already rewarded him with a pair of TDs.

One more thing that favors the Browns even though odds makers have made them nine-point dogs: Teams coming off byes thus far this season are 3-9 in their first games back.

Of the 12 teams with byes, only Baltimore, Denver and Kansas City won their first week back. Four teams returned with home games and own a 1-3 record. Eight returned on the road and sport a 2-6 mark.

So the odds do, indeed, favor a Cleveland victory, right?

Uh, no. Not quite. Nice try. Make it:

49ers 24, Browns 6

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