A chance to finally win
If there is one game the Browns can win this season – you have no idea how strange it is to type that – it is Sunday’s matchup against the invading New York Jets.
The Jets are 2-5 and represent the softest remaining spot on the Cleveland schedule, relatively speaking, since all the remaining teams on that schedule have won at least three games.
The travel-weary Browns – five of the first seven games were on the road – play five of the next six in front of the home folks. Despite that, they will be underdogs in every one. Not exactly a badge of honor..
It’s also the kind of respect this moribund team can expect the rest of the season. They have proven beyond any doubt whatsoever in the first seven games that they deserve to be winless.
In a season when the next victory probably would be considered a step in the right direction (at least by the coaching staff and front office) and mockingly celebrated, the schedule from here on out does them no favor.
They still have to play division rivals Pittsburgh (twice), Baltimore (on the road) and Cincinnati (at home), Buffalo (on the road), San Diego (at home) and home dates with two more teams from the NFC East (Dallas and the New York Giants).
Maybe the Browns have a shot at winning the Chargers game on Christmas Eve day. You know the thing about having an advantage of playing a team from southern California in Cleveland in late December. (Falls under the category of wishful thinking.)
Back to reality. The Jets come in on a roll, if you can call snapping a four-game losing streak last Sunday by knocking off Baltimore at home a roll. That’s a feeling the Browns hope to have sometime before winding up the season in Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day.
These teams have met only 23 times since 1970, the Browns holding a 13-10 edge after winning the first six. The Jets have won the last three in a row, including a 31-10 pounding last season in New Jersey.
Their first meeting on Sept. 21, 1970 was historic in nature. It was the very first Monday Night Football game on ABC with Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith in the booth. (Frank Gifford replaced Jackson the following year.) It was a television experiment that caught on immediately and became a viewing staple.
The two teams put on quite a show for the national audience, the Jets on offense and the Browns on defense. Jets quarterback Joe Namath led a New York attack that totaled 473 gross yards, including a running game that produced 168 yards.
However, the Jets turned the ball over four times, three on Namath interceptions, the last of which by linebacker Billy Andrews resulted in a pick-6 after the Jets had crept to within 24-21.
The Browns, who never trailed in the 31-21 victory despite producing only 221 yards of offense, shot out to a 21-7 lead after Homer Jones returned the second-half kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown.
Cleveland quarterback Bill Nelsen was a pedestrian 12-of-27 for only 145 yards, but connected with Gary Collins for an eight-yard score in the opening quarter. Running back Bo Scott ran for only 12 yards, but his two-yard plunge gave the Browns a 14-0 lead after one.
It was clearly a chippy game with the two teams racking up 21 penalties (13 by the Browns) for 262 yards (161 by the Browns). It was also the final season for coach Blanton Collier, who led the Browns to their last National Football League championship in 1964.
Those were the days, of course, when Browns fans were treated to consistently good football. It was the kind of football that made fans think Sundays from September to December couldn’t arrive quickly enough.
It’s nice for those old enough to remember what it was like back then, back when winning football was the norm. Back when the team that wore the Seal Brown and Orange actually made one feel proud to be a fan of the team. That’s a feeling those who run the front office of the current team hope some day to give fans.
Back to the present.
The Browns enter Sunday’s game as three-point underdogs. That’s the kind of disrespect this team has engendered. The home team, which automatically gets three points for just being the home team, is a three-point dog to a 2-5 team.
Well, the Jets are not your ordinary 2-5 team. They clearly have more talent on their roster than the young Browns and knocked off the Buffalo and Baltimore, two pretty good teams, for their only victories.
The Jets’ problem lies more on offense than defense. More specifically, it lies with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose contractual dispute with the front office before training camp was unsettling.
He was coming off a 3,900-yard, 31-toucbdown season and wanted to be paid commensurately. The two sides settled on a one-year, $12 million deal, but he has done nothing to justify that kind of money. And that is the root of the Jets’ problems.
The 33-year-old veteran from Harvard was so bad in the first six games, coach Todd Bowles benched him in favor of Geno Smith, who promptly tore his ACL in the second quarter of last Sunday’s victory over Baltimore. Fitzpatrick’s 11 interceptions are the big reason the Jets’ are minus-10 in turnover ratio.
You would think the Browns’ pass defense, as bad as it is, would be able to cash in on such generosity. But until it musters any semblance of a pass rush to give the secondary a chance to make plays, that’s not going to happen.
The Browns do get a break, however, with the news Jets wide receiver Eric Decker, a Fitzpatrick favorite target, has been placed on inured reserve with a torn rotator cuff. He still has wideouts Brandon Marshall and Quincy Enunwa and Matt Forte, one of the best receiving running backs in the NFL.
It’s on defense where the Jets’ strength lies, especially in the front seven. Trying to run against them is futile. Just ask the Ravens, who punched out only 11 total yards infantry style last Sunday. The Jets yield just 75 yards a game on the ground.
Running the ball effectively is essential for the Browns now that Josh McCown has returned at quarterback. If they have any chance of slamming the breaks on their 10-game losing streak, keeping McCown vertical should be priority one.
Whoever owns the line of scrimmage when the Browns have the ball most likely wins this game. The Jets have only 14 sacks this season, but six belong to second-year defensive end Leonard Williams, who will line up against Austin Pasztor of the Browns.
Holes must be created for Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. by an offensive line that seems to be getting worse by the game. If the openings are not there, McCown will be forced to do something that puts him in danger of reinjuring his collarbone: throw the ball.
Right now, the only reliable member of that line is left tackle Joe Thomas. Everyone else is either playing out of position or relatively inexperienced. It presents a major challenge for coach Hue Jackson to come up with an effective game plan.
Look for Williams to add at least one sack to his total, defensive tackles Muhammad Wilkerson and Steve McLendon to overwhelm the middle of the Cleveland line and a New York secondary, which has only four interceptions, to add to that total.
Perennial All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis most likely will shadow Browns wideout Terrelle Pryor, forcing McCown to rely on tight end Gary Barnidge, his favorite target last season, and rookie wideouts Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins and Jordan Payton.
The Cleveland offense never gets fully untracked against an aggressive Jets defense, but with help from its defense, manages to hold on and make it a game entering the fourth quarter.
That defense shuts down the New York offense in the first three quarters, limiting it to a pair of Nick Folk field goals, sacking Fitzpatrick thrice and adding two more interceptions to his total before crumbling in the final quarter.
Crowell’s fifth touchdown of the season, culminating the Browns’ only sustained drive of the afternoon, gives the Browns a narrow halftime lead. It stretches into the early minutes of the fourth quarter when disaster arrives suddenly.
Williams strip sacks McCown deep in Cleveland territory four minutes into the quarter, setting up a Forte touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, George Atkinson III fumbles, the Jets recover and turn the gift into another Forte touchdown 45 seconds later.
And just like that, in a matter of moments, the game is turned upside down for the Browns, whose losing streak this season reaches eight at the halfway mark in a season that can’t end soon enough. Make it:
Jets 20, Browns 13