Friday, December 20, 2013

A coin-flipping dilemma

There are so many good reasons to pick the Browns to break their five-game losing streak Sunday in New Jersey against the New York Jets.

And there are a few good reasons to pick the Jets. More on that later.

So why pick the Browns? Because the Jets’ offense stinks. There is no other way to put it.

Think the Browns have problems when they own the ball? Compared to the Jets, their offense borders on championship caliber. At least they’ve got a couple of outstanding playmakers in Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron.

The Jets have no one on whom they can rely. There isn’t a member of their offense who can stand up and say, “Follow me,” and be reasonably assured that will happen. On offense, the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jet, Jets are B-A-D-D, bad, bad, bad.

They have no quarterback – unless you consider rookie Geno Smith a quality National Football League quarterback – and that spells offensive disaster. Smith is a statistical nightmare.

He has thrown just 10 touchdown passes this season, connected on 21 other passes to the opposition and throws an interception every 18 attempts. He averages an anemic 189 yards a game.

Thrust into the starting position at the beginning of the season by coach Rex Ryan out of default, Smith has experienced growing pains unlike most rookie quarterbacks.

Mark Sanchez was ticketed to be the Jets’ starting quarterback, but fell into disfavor for some unknown reason and was relegated to the bench during the exhibition season. Smith, the club’s second-round selection in last April’s college football draft, was given every opportunity to win the starting job.

When Sanchez went down with what eventually turned out to be a season-ending shoulder injury in mop-up duty in an exhibition, Smith was anointed. And it has been a decidedly more difficult season than he envisioned.

Because of his generosity with his passes to the opposition, the club’s turnover ratio is an astounding minus 19. Five of Smith’s picks have been returned for touchdowns. That they are 6-8 entering the Browns’ game with stats like that is rather remarkable.

The Jets have scored 61% of their 246 points in five games, compiling a 4-1 record. They have lost only one game when scoring 27 or more points. When they score 20 or less, they are 2-7. And they have scored only 20 offensive touchdowns.

Their defense is on the field way more than it deserves to be. It is a testament to Ryan’s defensive staff that the Jets, who have lost four of their last five games, have a shot at finishing even on the season.

The only reason they are at 6-8 and the Browns slumming along at 4-10 is the Jets hold serve at home, where they are 5-2. The Browns finished 3-5 at the Factory of Sadness.

This is the kind of game the highly overrated and underperforming Cleveland defense has a solid shot at winning. Even if cornerback Joe Haden is unable to suit up, the Browns’ secondary should have no problem locating Smith’s passes.

And the Cleveland pass rush, which has operated on peaks and in valleys all season, should have no problem working against an offensive line that has surrendered 47 sacks in front of a quarterback who is supposed to be mobile.

Then again, when you consider Smith’s favorite targets are tight end Jeff Cumberland (tight ends have been a season-long problem with the Browns) and wide receivers Jeremy Kerley and David Nelson, how frightening is that? Cumberland and Kerley have caught seven of Smith’s 10 scoring throws.

So why pick the Jets when there is overwhelming evidence that the Browns really have to screw this one up to lose? Let’s start with the stronger side of the ball for the Jets.

Defensively, they are geared to stop the run, limiting opponents to just 86 yards a game. That’s good enough to be ranked near the top of the NFL. Considering how poorly the Browns have run the ball this season, this aspect of the game should be conceded to the Jets, although I’d like to see a lot more of newcomer Edwin Baker than we saw last Sunday.

If the Browns’ guards can get to the second level on running plays and neutralize inside linebackers David Harris and DeMario Davis, who have combined for 212 tackles this season, then maybe Baker and Willis McGahee can do something few teams have done all season against the Jets – move the ball infantry style.

But that’s a big if because that is something those guards have been unable to do this season. In small part, that’s one of the reasons the Browns’ running game is an embarrassment.

The entire Cleveland offensive line will have to be sharp, too. Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and outside linebacker Calvin Pace are constant threats to opposing quarterbacks. They own half of the club’s 38 sacks: Wilkerson with 10; Pace with nine.

You beat the Jets by throwing against a team that has picked off just eight passes. Considering how little Jason Campbell connected with Gordon and Cameron (iffy to play this Sunday due to concussion issues) last Sunday, look for more aerial fireworks their way.

If anything, there are more good reasons than not to pick the Browns in this one. And yet, there is the nagging feeling they do not play well on the road, although they sure looked formidable in New England a couple of weeks ago.

If that performance against the Patriots can be replicated against the Jets, the pick is easy. But if the Jets’ mastery at home trumps the Browns’ inability to win on the road, that’s an awfully persuasive argument to go the other way. This one looks like a coin flipper.

Considering it will be played in the venue that hosts this season’s Super Bowl, look at it this way. This might not be the Super Bowl for the Browns, but winning where it will be played is the next best thing. OK, that’s a stretch; a big stretch. And yes, I’m stalling.

The coin has landed on tails. The losing streak ends.  Make it:

Browns 17, Jets 13

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