Friday, December 21, 2018

Seeking a series sweep

 The Browns have knocked down several losing barriers this season en route to one of their best seasons, relatively speaking, since returning to the National Football League in 1999.

Long-lasting losing streaks on the road, within in a season and against certain teams have fallen as the road to correctness continues during this surprising season of entertaining football.

Next up is conceivably ending up with not just a decent record within the AFC North, but their best since the resurrection.

Believe it or not, the Browns have never had a record better than .500 within the AFC North (and AFC Central before that) in the first 19 seasons. They have an excellent chance to change that in the next two weeks.

They enter Sunday’s home finale against Cincinnati, whom they beat in week 12, with a 2-1-1 division record and a good shot at finishing 4-1-1 in Baltimore against the Ravens, whom they defeated in week five.

Their lone blemish was a 33-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who check in a 3-1-1 before their season finale against the Bengals at home a week from Sunday.

Sweeping a season series is a big deal and a rarity for the current iteration of the Browns. The last – and only – time they swept the Bengals was way back in 2002.

They knocked off the Ravens twice in a season in 2001 and 2007 with a good shot at No. 3 this season, but have yet to register a season sweep of the Steelers after 20 seasons of trying.

Both of the final two opponents enter their games with head coaches on hot seats: Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati and John Harbaugh in Baltimore. The Bengals arrive in Cleveland fresh off ending a five-game losing streak last Sunday against Oakland and without their starting quarterback and two best wide receivers.

The Browns ended Andy Dalton’s season in week 12, the veteran quarterback sustaining a thumb injury in the first half of the Browns’ ridiculously easy 35-20 victory. It saw rookie Baker Mayfield throw four touchdown passes and the Browns take a 35-7 lead early in the second half.

A nagging toe injury has kept veteran wide receiver A. J. Green idle for most of the second half of the season and he was eventually placed on injured reserve. And Tyler Boyd, who picked up the slack in Green’s absence, suffered a sprained MCL in the Oakland victory and has been ruled out for Sunday’s game. Between them, they caught 122 passes for 1,722 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.

Jeff Driskel, who took over for Dalton, is completing 60% of his passes, but has only four touchdown passes and been picked off twice. He has thrown for more than 200 yards in a game just once.

The linchpin for the Bengals’ offense is bruising running back Joe Mixon, who is just five yards shy of 1,000 yards. He ran for 89 yards in the first meeting, mainly because Driskel was forced to throw the ball 29 times after falling behind so badly.

Look for head coach/defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to crowd the line of scrimmage in an effort to neutralize Mixon and force Driskel to put the ball up with a weakened receiving corps.

His main targets most likely will be tight end C. J. Uzomah, who caught six passes in the first game, but was targeted 12 times, and speedy wide receiver John Ross, who has caught only 19 passes this season, six of them in the end zone.

The Cincinnati defense has been a problem, maybe the main problem, for the Bengals all season. It has allowed 413 points, a 50.5% conversion rate on third down, 142 yards a game on the ground and 24 first downs a game.

To give you some idea of how porous the run defense is, the two leading tacklers on the team, by far, are safeties. Free safety Jessie Bates has 99 tackles (65 solo) and strong safety Shawn Williams has banked 95 tackles (69 solo). They have also picked off seven passes.

Defensive tackle Geno Atkins (10) and defensive ends Carlos Dunlap (eight) and rookie Sam Hubbard (six) lead the pass rush that was blanked by the Browns’ offensive line in the first game. They account for 24 of the club’s 33 sacks.

And then there’s the Hue Jackson factor, which probably will be a topic of conversation whenever these teams meet as long as the former head coach of the Browns remains with the Bengals in some capacity.

The Browns played arguably their best game of the season against the Bengals with Jackson on the Cincinnati sideline, probably wondering why the team didn’t play like that for him before he was canned midway through the season.

The answer to that, of course, is simple. He created the dysfunction on and off the field that eventually led to his dismissal and the insertion of Williams, who brought a much-needed semblance of balance and order to a team that underachieved and needed to hear a new voice.

The Browns, who get rookie cornerback Denzel Ward back after clearing concussion protocol, are whopping nine-point favorites, a heady situation they haven’t enjoyed since can’t remember when.

As such, it might be considered by some as a trap game, having rolled over the Bengals so easily in their initial meeting. Guarding against overconfidence – imagine saying that about the Browns – is rare foreign territory.

The guess here is Williams and his staff are going to make certain the victory down in Cincinnati just a few weeks after Jackson was cashiered was not a fluke. Winning a pair of season series undoubtedly is the carrot that will keep them focused for the next two Sundays.

Mayfield will not throw four more touchdown passes this time, but the Browns are much healthier and clearly the better team and he won’t have to. The Bengals use the revenge factor to stay close for a half before the Browns pull away in the second half. Make it:

Browns, 27, Bengals 13

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