Smelling a Browns upset?
The way the Browns have played this season, and the manner in which they have been coached, it would be so easy to predict another loss Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals pay a visit.
Before we head in that direction, let’s examine the landscape for the game, starting with how well the Browns have fared against their AFC North rivals lately.
Well is the not really the operative word when discussing the Browns’ adventures within their division. Doesn’t even come close.
In the last 26 games against the Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers over the last four-plus seasons, the Browns have celebrated a victory in the club house just three times.
Let that resonate. Let that percolate. Let that swim around for a while before you wrap your mind around it.
Statistical wonks won’t hesitate to tell you that’s a winning percentage of 11½. Now factor in that the Browns have lost 12 straight games to division opponents since knocking off the Bengals at Cleveland Browns Stadium 105 weeks ago.
No wonder division rivals chuckle and relax when they see the Browns coming up on the schedule. It’s their twice-a-season breather.
When you’re 3-23 against the teams you have to beat in order to have any chance of even thinking about the postseason, something is definitely wrong. And no one seems to know how to correct that.
The Browns have accomplished this most dubious feat with three different coaches. But at least Romeo Crennel knows what it’s like to beat an AFC North team. So does Eric Mangini.
Pat Shurmur, however, has been to the plate six times against the division and whiffed every time. He’s come close a few times, like three-, six- and four-point losses last season. But you know what they say about horseshoes, hand grenades and close.
It is said good teams just know how to win. Somehow, they almost always find a way. And bad teams just know how to lose. Somehow, they almost always find a way.
OK, enough about the recent past. Theoretically, that shouldn’t be a factor Sunday. After all, more than half of the current roster has no idea how badly the Browns have played against their division rivals. All they know is they have dropped a pair of seven-point games this season to the Bengals and Ravens.
The last time Browns faced the Bengals in week two, the offense starred and the defense and special teams bombed in a 34-27 loss. But it provided a glimpse into what could be a bright future from an offensive standpoint.
Brandon Weeden racked up his best game of the season statistically. The rookie quarterback, who will celebrate his 29th birthday Sunday, strafed the Cincinnati secondary for 322 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 70.3% completion rate.
Fellow rookie Trent Richardson busted loose for 109 yards and scored two spectacular touchdowns, one in infantry style and the other on a take-your-breath-away 23-yard run after receiving a flat pass from Weeden.
To give you some perspective as to how bad the Bengals have been on defense this season, Cleveland wide receiver Greg Little caught five passes – he was targeted seven times – and scored the last touchdown.
Perhaps that’s why oddsmakers have made the Browns just 1½-point dogs for this one. What they haven’t taken into consideration, however, is the improvement the Bengals’ defense has shown in the last two games.
In their first three games this season, the 3-2 Bengals surrendered 102 points, but in splitting the last two decisions, they have limited the opposition to just 27 points. Nearly half (eight) of their 18 sacks were recorded in those two games.
The Browns’ offensive line, meanwhile, has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in the last two games. In the first three games of the season, Weeden dropped back 128 times and was sacked eight times. In the last two games, he has been sacked just once in 92 dropbacks.
It’s no coincidence the Bengals’ pass rush has improved with the insertion of Vontaze Burfict into the starting lineup at outside linebacker on the weak (right) side in week three. Chances are the free agent and Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas will lock up more than once.
Burfict is the Arizona State linebacker who went undrafted because he showed up overweight and out of shape at his individual workout and was considered a huge risk because of his temper, which resulted in numerous personal fouls (17 in 35 games) and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
His out-of-control reputation took a hit, but Bengals coach Marvin Lewis took a chance and it has paid off. The Browns had a shot at him in the seventh round, but chose instead to draft fullback/tight end Brad Smelley after taking linebackers James-Michael Johnson and Emmanuel Acho earlier.
Johnson backs up D’Qwell Jackson at middle linebacker, while Smelley is on the practice squad and Acho landed on injured reserve and is out for the season. Draw your own conclusions.
The Cincinnati offense runs the ball 42% of the time, but they do so ineffectively. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been a big disappointment at running back. The former New England Patriot has rushed for only 300 yards and scored just twice.
That hasn’t helped quarterback Andy Dalton, who has been sacked 15 times (six times in the Cleveland victory) in five games. Without any kind of a running game, the second-year man is a sitting duck. But when he is able to throw, he completes nearly two of every three passes. Three of his nine touchdown passes were against the Browns in week two.
Wideouts A. J. Green and Andrew Hawkins and tight end Jermaine Gresham will be his main targets. But the Browns’ secondary gets cornerback Joe Haden back from his four-game league suspension and you can bet he’ll glom onto Green.
The X-factor on defense for the Browns will be the availability of Jackson and defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin, both of whom were injured in last week’s loss to the New York Giants.
If Jackson, who sacked Dalton thrice and picked him off once in their first meeting, plays on a short leash because of his concussion last week, and Rubin can’t go, look for the Bengals to ratchet up the running game.
Like their first encounter this season, this one should be a high scoring game. But the outcome will be different.
Weeden throws three touchdown passes, Joshua Cribbs returns a punt for a touchdown, the Browns sack Dalton four more times and Shurmur gets his first victory of the season that ends that nasty 11-game losing streak. Make it:
Browns 34, Bengals 27