Friday, November 30, 2012

Just win, baby

The Browns have played five games on the road this season and been underdogs in each one. Lost every one of them, too. In fact, they have lost a club-record 12 straight away from home

But when the betting lines came out earlier this week, the Browns found themselves in an unfamiliar position: favorites.

That’s right, the smart Las Vegas money says if you put your money down on the Browns against the Raiders Sunday in Oakland, you have to spot the home team a point. Stunning, I know.

A game in the Oakland Coliseum, where the Raiders used to be nearly invincible and the Browns, of all teams, enter as the favorite? Yep. That’s how bad the Raiders, who sport the same 3-8 record as the Browns, have fallen.

Home teams usually get three points for home-field advantage. But oddsmakers are not buying the Raiders, even in front of the famed Black Hole fans.

Black Hole fans used to be extremely hard on visiting teams. The rowdy behavior of fans in sections 104-5-6-7 in the Coliseum makes the their counterparts in Cleveland’s Dawg Pound look tame by comparison.

The garishly dressed fans in those sections project the pirate image the Raiders like to have attached to their name, but they haven’t had much about which to get excited for the last couple of seasons. The Raiders were 3-5 at home last season and are just 2-3 this season. So much for home field advantage.

But these are the Cleveland Browns, the National Football League’s version of road kill. Not even the Raiders can mess this one up. Or can they?

Let’s take a closer look at this team, at one time a member of the NFL’s power elite. It hasn’t been exactly smooth sailing in Dennis Allen’s first season as head coach. In fact, it has been near disaster. And most of the finger pointing is at the defense.

In their 11 games, the Raiders have given up fewer than 22 points in a game only once, They have surrendered 169 points in the last four games, all losses, a 42.25-point average. On the season, they have allowed a league-worst 356 points, or 32.4 points a game.

That they have won three games is a testament to a decent offense led by quarterback Carson Palmer. In order to win games, the Raiders literally have to outscore opposing teams because the defense isn’t shutting down anyone.

And the situation didn’t get any better this week with the defense after third-year middle linebacker Rolando McClain reportedly mouthed off to his head coach and was told he was not wanted at practice. Unless a truce is reached, McClain, the club’s fourth-leading tackler, will be MIA against the Browns. (Update: McClain has been suspended for two games.)

The Oakland defense yields 379 yards a game (131 on the ground), has sacked opposing quarterbacks an NFL-low 13 times this season (the Browns have 28) and picked off just six passes, another league low (the Browns have 13).

It sure looks as though the inconsistent Cleveland offense might finally have some fun this week. That, of course, is if offensive coordinator Brad Childress and coach Pat Shurmur don’t give the sieve-like Oakland defense any respect. That’s not a given.

There is one factor, however, that might mess up whatever plans Childress and Shurmur have. The weather forecast for Sunday in Oakland calls for torrential rain and winds of about 25 miles an hour. But the Browns are used to playing in such conditions.

The entertained the San Diego Chargers on Oct. 28 in a steady game-long rain at Cleveland Browns Stadium with wind gusts up to 40 miles an hour. Those conditions dictated scaling back the passing game and concentrating on the run game. The result was a 7-6 Cleveland victory. That was the game where Chargers wide receiver Robert Meachem dropped a sure touchdown pass in the third quarter.

If the meteorologists are correct, one would think it favors the Browns because the Raiders, who average just 88 yards a game on the ground, rely heavily on the passing of Palmer and receiving of Denarius Moore and tight end Brandon Myers. That tandem has been on the receiving end of half of Palmer’s 18 touchdown passes.

What balances the scales for the Raiders, though, is the return of running backs Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson, both of whom suffered high ankle sprains in a loss to Tampa Bay and missed the last four games.

McFadden, when healthy, is one of the NFL’s most dangerous runners. But the Browns’ run defense has been the most pleasant surprise this season. It has allowed just 112 yards on the ground the last two games.

With defensive tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin finally healthy and contributing, word is getting around that running on the Browns this season is not as easy as it’s been the last several seasons. They have limited opposing teams to just 118.4 yards a game on the ground this season, compared to 147.4 a game a year ago.

If the weather forecast is correct, it figures to be a battle of the running games with Trent Richardson and McFadden dueling in the rain. Palmer, who sports a 9-3 career record against the Browns with 25 touchdown passes, and Brandon Weeden will spend most of the afternoon handing off. Trench warfare should dominate the afternoon.

Kicking could very well determine the winner of this one. Phil Dawson has been perfect this season for the Browns, while Oakland thunderfoot Sebastian Janikowski has missed just once, a 64-yarder against Jacksonville. And both men have proven deadly from 50-plus yards.

One last look at the stats reveals the Raiders have allowed 156 points in their five home games this season. That’s 32 points a game. No reason to think the Browns can’t match that and smash that losing streak to smithereens at the same time. The streak ends at 12. Make it:

Browns 32, Raiders 17

Weather permitting.

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