Thursday, November 24, 2016

Smashing the crystal ball

In the Aug. 29 issue of Sports Illustrated, staff writer Jacob Feldman looked into his crystal ball and predicted on a game-by-game basis how the Browns would finish the 2016 season.

After the first 11 of the 16 games, Feldman is perfect. In other words, he correctly foresaw the Browns losing every one of them. He also foresaw them not quite equaling the winless season of the 2008 Detroit Lions.

When he predicted the Browns would finish with a 1-15 record, he drew the ire of many members of Browns Nation. Surely this young team would accidentally bump into at least a victory or three along the way.

Even your humble blogger, known for his pessimistic outlook on just about everything Browns, thought he saw three victories in what should be considered a stretch even for him. I mistakenly believed (hoped?) they would split their first four games.

So when Feldman, after a thorough evaluation of the 2016 edition of the Browns, reached his conclusion and decided one was the magic victory number, curiosity arose as to which team would help the Browns avoid infamous history.

Hard to believe, but he selected the Browns’ opponent Sunday in Cleveland, the New York Giants, as that team. As in the 7-3 New York Giants. As in the New York Giants, who have won their last five games (four of them at home).

Now Feldman most likely did not expect the Giants to be 7-3 and challenging the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC East lead at this point of the season. If he had been that prescient, he most certainly would not have tabbed them as the Browns’ only victim this season.

Not sure, of course, which team among the final four would have received that dubious honor, but that is moot considering Feldman’s leap of faith in the Browns against the Giants last August.

These two teams developed quite a rivalry when the Browns joined the National Football League in 1950 and played numerous memorable games with the Giants in the then 12-team league, meeting each other twice a season.

Perhaps the most famous was the second 1958 game at Yankee Stadium in a snowstorm. The Browns held a one-game lead over the Giants in the NFL East Division. A tie or victory and they would have played the Baltimore Colts for the league championship.

With the game tied at 10-10 and the Giants facing a fourth-and-long with 2:07 left in regulation and the ball somewhere just outside the Cleveland 40-yard line, Giants coach Jim Lee Howell called on placekicker Pat Summerall – yes, that Pat Summerall – to save the season.

Summerall, who had missed an earlier attempt from 33 yards through the mini blizzard, did not miss this time from what was officially listed as 49 yards. They had to guess because the yard markers were obliterated on the snow-covered field.

Said Summerall after the game, “No one knows how far it had to go, but it was more than 50 I’ll tell you that.” The victory required a playoff game between the two teams, which the Giants won, 10-0, the following week in New York.

That Giants went on to play the Colts in what has been labeled the greatest football game ever played, the 23-17 classic climaxed by Baltimore fullback Alan Ameche’s iconic scoring run from one yard out in the NFL’s first overtime game.

On the coaching staff of that Giants team were offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi and defensive coordinator Tom Landry, both of whom became iconic head coaches whose busts reside in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But that was then and this is now.

The two teams have met 50 times overall since 1950, the Browns owning a 27-21-2 record. However, they have met only nine times since 1969 and just four times since the Browns were reborn in 1999, mainly because they belong to different conferences and meet only once every four years.

This season’s Giants, the only team to knock off the Cowboys this season, are accustomed to playing close games. Their seven victories have been by one, three, four, seven, five, one and six points. They have lost by two, 14 and seven points.

For most of the first half of the season, the Giants were a one-dimensional team on offense. With running back Rashad Jennings unavailable for three games because of an injured thumb, it was quarterback Eli Manning, a solid group of receivers and not much else.

It wasn’t difficult to game-plan against them. Shut down Manning and your chances of winning increased. But Jennings is back now despite lingering soreness in his left thumb and running well, having gained 172 yards in his last two games.

The offensive balance new coach Ben McAdoo had envisioned this season is finally beginning to pay off. It makes the receiving corps of Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz and Sterling Shepard that much more dangerous against a Cleveland secondary that has seriously underperformed this season.

Beckham and Shepard have combined for 1.295 receiving yards and 11 of Manning’s 17 scoring passes. The pass-to-run ratio, which tilted heavily in favor of the forward pass in Jennings’ absence, is starting to skew a lot closer to 55-45 now that he is back.

Where the Giants have problems is maintaining possession of the football, averaging only 27 minutes a game. A lot of that is due to the minus-7 turnover ratio, caused in part by Manning’s 10 interceptions.

The Giants’ defense has been the saving grace. The secondary averages a pick a game with strong safety Landon Collins leading the way with half of them, one a pick-6.  He also leads the team in tackles and solo tackles and has three sacks.

Along the defensive line, which most likely will give the Cleveland offensive line problems all afternoon, look for ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon (each with four sacks) to harass Cleveland quarterback Josh McCown early and often. Pierre-Paul should have a big day against Cleveland offensive tackle Austin Pasztor.

Because the Giants with the one exception have played tight games this season, there is no reason to believe the Browns can’t hang in there with them for at least a half Sunday and give Feldman some hope of being correct.

But (and there is always a but with this team) the Browns will spoil that by doing what they have done so alarmingly often in the second half of games this season: Disappear.

After battling to a 7-7 tie in the first 30 minutes, the Cleveland defensive line will collapse against a good Giants offensive line and the visitors will pull away behind Jennings and the Manning-Beckham connection, which will account for three touchdowns.

So it looks as though Feldman’s perfect record of picking the Browns’ wins and losses correctly this season will come to an end. But the Browns’ losing streaks will not, reaching 12 in a row this season, 15 straight overall and 22 of the last 23. Make it:

Giants 28, Browns 7 (Correction from initial post)

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