One big "if"can make the difference
The last time the Browns and Detroit Lions played a game of football, it produced one of the most entertaining games of the 2009 National Football League season.
It took place at Detroit’s Ford Field on Nov. 22 and featured a pair of 1-8 teams headed at breakneck speed toward graveyard status in the NFL. Two teams going nowhere rapidly. The only reward was the paychecks each man received for participating in one of the most meaningless games of that season.
And boy did they put on a show. It did not lack for drama, excitement and entertainment value. For a couple of teams scraping the bottom of the talent barrel, it provided the fans on hand and those at home watching on television more than their money’s worth.
At the outset, it looked like a mismatch, the Browns jumping out to a 24-3 lead late in the first quarter on Brady Quinn scoring passes to Mo Massaquoi, Chansi Stuckey and Joshua Cribbs. They functioned more like an 8-1 team than a 1-8 team and made the Lions look even worse than their 1-8.
But the Lions stormed back to make it a three-point game (27-24 Browns) game at the half with rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford connecting on three touchdown passes of his own. His fourth put the Lions ahead, 31-29, after three.
But the Browns regrouped and retaliated, retaking the lead with 5:44 left in regulation when Quinn hit tight end Michael Gaines with a short scoring pass and Jamal Lewis ran for the two-point conversion for a 37-31 Cleveland lead.
The Browns seemingly had the game wrapped up in the final seconds when Stafford’s desperate heave from the Cleveland 32-yard line, intended for wide receiver Calvin Johnson in the end zone, was picked off by safety Brodney Pool.
But Cleveland cornerback Hank Poteat was flagged for pass interference on Johnson and the Lions were awarded an untimed play. Stafford, who suffered shoulder and collarbone injuries when knocked to the ground on the play, limped to the sidelines and was replaced by Daunte Culpepper.
First-year Cleveland coach Eric Mangini then called consecutive timeouts to make certain there would be no confusion on the untimed play. That allowed Stafford to come back in for the final play. No timeouts and Culpepper would have been forced to run the untimed play.
Stafford lobbied Lions coach Jim Schwartz hard to return to the game. But before the coach could reply, the quarterback put on his helmet and trotted out to the huddle. “Matt’s best play of the day might have been eluding four team doctors to get back on the field,” said Schwartz.
Stafford proceeded to find tight end Brandon Pettigrew for the 1-yard score and Jason Hanson’s extra point gave the Lions the improbable 38-37 victory. It was just another dose of Murphy’s Law for the Browns, a bedeviled, star-crossed franchise since 1999.
So if Sunday’s meeting between these same two clubs at what used to be called Cleveland Browns Stadium turns out to be anything like that game, or at least half as entertaining, the fans are in for quite a treat. The biggest difference is that this time, both clubs enter with a 3-2 record.
Based solely on their records, they are headed in the opposite direction of four years ago, in Cleveland with almost an entirely different cast and in Detroit with some significant holdovers.
The Browns enter with a three-game winning streak. The last time they won four games in a row was, ironically, the final four outings of the 2009 season after starting the season at 1-11. The Lions, by the way, never won another game that season and finished 2-14.
The only starters back from that Browns team are offensive linemen Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. The roster since then has undergone two makeovers – the first by Mike Holmgren & Co. and the latest by Joe Banner & Co.
The Lions, meanwhile, return five starters from that game – Stafford, Johnson, Pettigrew, center Dominic Raiola and safety Louis Delmas. One sign of bad teams is constant roster maneuvering.
The key to this one is the health of Johnson. The 6-5, 240-pound perennial All-Pro is battling a knee injury that forced him to miss last Sunday’s loss in Green Bay. His status for this week is questionable with the Lions obviously being coy as to whether he’ll play.
The Lions, who lost No. 2 wideout Nate Burleson to a broken arm a couple of weeks ago, are a different football team with Johnson, arguably the best receiver in the NFL, in street clothes. With him, they are constant threat on offense. Without him, they are exceedingly vulnerable despite a very active defense.
Stafford, who completes 64% of his passes with eight touchdowns and only three interceptions, is a different quarterback without him. When he’s missing the luxury of throwing to the best in the game, he becomes ordinary throwing to the likes of Kris Durham Kevin Ogletree, Ryan Broyles and Micheal Spurlock.
With Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton throwing all kinds of exotic looks at Stafford and his receivers, it wouldn’t surprise to see Stafford’s pick total rise.
Despite a strong and aggressive front seven, the Lions have permitted 125 yards a game on the ground and nearly 400 yards overall. Theoretically, that bodes well for a Cleveland running attack that has sputtered all season.
The Browns’ offensive line must neutralize Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley & Co. (Suh will be John Greco’s responsibility) and keep Brandon Weeden’s uniform clean. Suh and rookie Ziggy Ansah own 5½ of the Lions’ 10 sacks.
The biggest difference in the Detroit offensive arsenal this season is running back Reggie Bush, who missed week three with a knee injury. The elusive Bush has compiled 502 total yards on offense with two touchdowns. He is just as dangerous receiving the ball as he is running with it from scrimmage and is a constant threat to score.
The Lions, 1-2 on the road his season, tend to play undisciplined football away from home. They average nearly 74 yards a game in penalties, most of them courtesy of the defense.
Because of the uncertainty of Johnson, who has caught 21 passes for 312 yards and four touchdowns this season, the pick this week will come with an “if” attached. It should be a very close game with the defenses on both teams controlling the game.
If Johnson plays, the whole complexion of the game changes. That’s how important he is to not only the offense, but the entire game plan as well. If he plays, the offense stays on the field longer, enabling the defense to rest.
If he plays, Browns cornerback Joe Haden draws the assignment of trying to shut him down and force Stafford to look for other alternatives. Haden is having a strong season. This would be his sternest test.
But if Johnson doesn’t play, the effectiveness of the Detroit offense is reduced substantially. That makes a significant difference. So . . .
If Johnson is healthy enough to play, the Lions eke out a victory. If he shows up Sunday in street clothes, the Browns’ winning streak stretches to four. Make it:
Lions 20, Browns 17 (with Johnson)
Browns 21, Lions 9 (without Johnson)
Cop out? Of course. But that’s my pick(s) and I’m sticking to it (them?).