Different Denver result?
The Denver Broncos are no longer a team that features a Hall of Fame quarterback, the kind that leads them to – and wins – Super Bowls. The days of John Elway and Peyton Manning are long gone.
The Broncos, who welcome the Browns to town Saturday night for a nationally televised game, have slogged along for the past three seasons scaring few teams on offense.
Defense is what keeps the Broncos afloat these days, just good enough to win games here and there and just bad enough on the other side of the football to ride the waves of mediocrity at 6-7.
In their never-ending hunt to discover some Elway-Manning magic, the Broncos gambled and signed free agent journeyman Case Keenum to a two-year, $36 million contract after failing miserably with Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler the last couple of seasons.
Keenum stunned the entire National Football League last season by coming off the bench in game two when Minnesota starter Sam Bradford went down for the umpteenth time, to lead the Vikings to the NFC championship game.
It was lightning captured in a bottle for an entire season. During his improbable season, he threw for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdown passes and was picked off just seven times. He is nowhere near those numbers this season.
Keenum, who checks in at Baker Mayfield height of 6-0 5/8, has thrown just 15 scoring passes with 10 interceptions. Those are not the kinds of numbers the Broncos expected from a quarterback who puts the ball up nearly two-thirds of the time.
To make matters worse, he lost two of his valuable weapons along the way when the Broncos traded veteran wide receiver Demaryius Thomas to Houston midway through the season and Emmanuel Sanders tore his Achilles’ tendon 10 days ago.
All of which, theoretically at least, gives the Browns’ beleaguered secondary a bit of a break Saturday night. Keenum’s top targets now are rookies Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton.
With one notable exception, the Denver offense has struggled all season putting points on the board even with Thomas and Sanders. The 45-10 bludgeoning of Arizona in week seven is deceiving as the secondary tacked on a pair of pick 6s.
Otherwise, they have exceeded 23 points in a game just barely one other time. Seven of their 13 games have been decided by four or fewer points, four winding up in the loss column.
Rookies Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman provide a nice running complement for Keenum, combining for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns, Lindsay, an undrafted free agent due mainly to his 5-8, 185-pound frame, is a local kid. He has nine of those scores and is just 33 yards away from booking a 1,000-yard season.
Where the Broncos beat you, though, is with their defense, which features two of the best pass-rushing linebackers in the NFL. Von Miller and rookie Bradley Chubb have spent a major portion of the season routinely meeting at the opposing quarterback.
They own 25½ of the club’s 40 sacks, presenting a huge challenge for the Browns’ offensive line, which has surrendered just one sack in the last four games. One reason for that remarkable (for the Browns) statistic is the quick-developing plays offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens has designed for Mayfield.
The rookie quarterback has sizzled at a nearly 75% success rate the last four games, accounting for three victories in that span, pushing the Browns into post-season conversation territory, albeit more dreaming than realism.
Just using the words Browns and postseason in the same sentence at this time of the season is semi-miraculous for a team many observers had relegated once again to the AFC North basement at the beginning of the season.
Mayfield has changed all that in a rather dramatic way and a victory against the Broncos, a team against whom the Browns have historically had precious little success, would just about qualify him for football sainthood.
The Broncos have won 23 of the 28 games these teams have played since 1970, including a pair of memorable playoff games in the Bernie Kosar era that still bedevil Browns Nation.
The current iteration of the Browns marches into Mile High Stadium seeking its first-ever victory after eight straight losses since 1999. And the way the Browns have been knocking down losing-streak barriers this season, anything is possible Saturday.
Mayfield probably has no idea of how much Denver has dominated this rivalry and undoubtedly does not give a rip. It’s that insouciant attitude that has rubbed off on his teammates. This is a new team, he insists. What happened in the past has nothing to do with these Browns.
And now the nation gets a chance to see what Browns fans have been so excited about the last six weeks.
A favorable outcome in this one hinges on whether the offensive line can neuter the terrific Denver pass rush and keep Mayfield clean, and the defense, most notably the secondary, taking advantage of a weak passing game.
Many signs point to a Cleveland victory. On offense, Mayfield is clearly the better quarterback and the Cleveland receiving corps has been clicking beautifully with him. The bend/don’t break defense might have some problems with Lindsay and Freeman if the Broncos choose to pound the football.
Then there are those nagging negative stats that balance the scale, The Browns are 1-5 on the road this season and can’t buy a victory in Denver. The Broncos seem to almost always find a way to win.
If this were next year, predicting the outcome of this game would be much easier. But it’s not. Next year, that is. The Browns are a year away from winning games like this. They come close, but not close enough. Make it:
Broncos 24, Browns 21