Scoring extravaganza in Atlanta
The Browns are 6-4 this season and scraping the bottom of the AFC North with the Baltimore Ravens.
The Atlanta Falcons are 4-6 this season and enjoying the heady feeling of first place in the NFC South with the New Orleans Saints.
Go figure. So much for parity in the National Football League.
The two teams meet Sunday in Atlanta for only the 14th time in this series – the Browns lead, 10-3 – with the Falcons coming off a two-game sweep of division rivals on the road and the Browns reeling a bit from an unexpected loss at home to Houston.
Momentum clearly rests in the Falcons’ corner after a 2-6 start in a division no team seems to want to win. The Browns, meanwhile, couldn’t handle the loftiness of first place.
The reason the Browns are a pair of games above .500 is the dominance – playing fast and loose with comparisons here – of their inter-conference schedule against the NFC South, having knocked off the Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Considering how poorly the NFC South is playing this season, that’s nothing about which to be boastful. Then again, the manner in which previous Browns teams have performed in Atlanta, this trip could turn out to be beneficial.
They have traveled to the Deep South six times over the years and won five games, the lone loss (17-14) administered in 1993 when Todd Philcox was the quarterback for the original Browns. The new Browns are 2-1 against the Falcons, including a 17-13 victory in their only trip to Atlanta.
Why the success in Atlanta? No one knows for certain. It’s a little like the Jacksonville Jaguars’ success against the Browns over the years, especially in Cleveland (6-2).
A perfect example is the Browns’ trip to Jacksonville in week seven this season against the winless Jags, who proceeded to humiliate them and it wasn’t even close. It cannot be reasoned. It just is.
Who knows? Maybe the Falcons are jinxed when the Browns come to town. They have scored just 87 points against Cleveland in those six games. For the statistically challenged, that’s 14.5 points a game. Amazingly, the Falcons have never scored more than 17 points against Cleveland at home.
Maybe it was a case of the Browns catching the Falcons at home at the right time. At first, that might have been the case after star Atlanta receiver Julio Jones missed a couple of practices earlier this week with an undisclosed illness. But he returned Friday and is set to battle former SEC rival Joe Haden.
The two have never met on the field in a regular-season NFL game, but were intense rivals when Haden attended the University of Florida and Jones played at the University of Alabama.
As long as Jones is in the NFL, he will be a constant reminder of a trade the Browns and Falcons engineered on college draft day in 2011. It turned out to be draft gold for Atlanta and draft fool’s gold for the Browns.
Cleveland General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. owned the sixth pick overall, but went for quantity over quality when he gave up that pick for five selections that covered two drafts. The Falcons surrendered their first-round pick (No. 27), a second-rounder and fourth-rounder in 2011, and a first-rounder and fourth-rounder in 2012 for Jones.
With those picks, the Browns took defensive tackle Phil Taylor, wide receiver Greg Little, fullback Owen Marecic and quarterback Brandon Weeden. The 2012 fourth-rounder was used as part of the deal to move up and draft Trent Richardson in 2012.
Little, Marecic and Weeden are gone, of course. Little and Weeden are backups with Cincinnati and Dallas after failing miserably with the Browns. And Marecic is out of football entirely.
The lone Cleveland survivor of that deal is Taylor, who has played sparingly this season because of knee problems and is currently on injured reserve.
Jones, meanwhile, has been sensational. He has 241 catches for 3,649 yards and 23 touchdowns in 44 games (he missed the last 11 games last season with a broken foot) and has caught 160 passes that gained a first down.
He has 67 receptions for 912 yards but only three TDs this season, teaming with Roddy White to give the Falcons arguably the best pair of wideouts in the league.
Where the Falcons have had trouble this season is the running game on offense (only 96 yards a game) and the overall defense (403 yards a game). But the Browns have had trouble stopping the run most of the season regardless of the opposition.
All of which means veteran Steven Jackson can look forward to having a big afternoon despite running for just 467 yards this season in 10 games. If the Browns can’t stop the likes of Denard Robinson, Lorenzo Taliaferro and Alfred Blue, Jackson should find little resistance from the Cleveland front seven.
With inside linebacker Karlos Dansby out for at least this week and possibly the season with a knee problem, there is no reason to believe that defense will be any sharper without its best player.
Throw in Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who completes nearly two-thirds of his passes and has a weapon for an arm, and the Cleveland defense could be in for a very long afternoon.
The only chance the Browns have to win this one is on offense. The Falcons yield an average of 122 yards on the ground and another 289 through the air. The Cleveland offensive line must win the trench battles for running backs Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West and keep quarterback Brian Hoyer clean. The latter objective might be easier.
The Atlanta pass rush is an oxymoron. In 10 games, the Falcons have dropped opposing quarterbacks 13 times, nine by the defensive line, two by linebacker Paul Worrilow and two more by the secondary. The 13 sacks are spread around to nine players with defensive end Osi Umenyiora leading the pack with 2½.
With Josh Gordon returning to the lineup after serving his 10-game suspension, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan for the first time this season has a wide receiver who can make a difference.
If this one turns into a shootout, the Browns have a shot only because Gordon is back in the mix and makes them that much more legitimate. The X factor is the Cleveland defense, which played way too conservatively last week in the loss to Houston.
Mike Pettine, perhaps because he has little faith in his secondary, has chosen to play much more that way than when he was an aggressive defensive coordinator in Buffalo last season. Look for more of that soft coverage Sunday, especially with the likes of Jones and White.
For that reason, Ryan and his offense will rack up substantial yardage and simply outscore the Cleveland offense in an entertaining game with defense taking a week off. For the first time in this series, the Falcons will score more than 17 points in a game. A whole lot more. Make it:
Falcons 38, Browns 24