The Eagles and Browns faced off against each other in Week 3 of the NFL preseason, but it was pretty much the equivalent of a soccer "friendly". On September 9th, the two square off again and this time it counts.
When the Eagles opened as -8 favorites on the road in the dog pound my eyebrows were raised. I wasn't surprised they were heavy favorites, but I was surprised that they were listed over a touchdown without anyone having seen a snap yet.
Fast forward to the current state of affairs. Both teams have shown us that they are likely going down the road as advertised. The Browns are toiling away near the bottom of most power rankings, while the Eagles enter the season as true contenders.
If you shop around you can now find Philly at -7, but most books are keeping them out of the teaser window and listing them at -9 or higher (odds courtesy of SBRforum). My suggestion is play them as touchdown favorites or tease them down if you can only get -8.5 to -7.5.
Weeden in Over his Head
Let's cut right to the chase. This Eagles defensive line is not good, it's great. The matchup with the Browns O-line isn't going be an extreme mismatch, but if you're a Browns fan the writing is on the wall. Trent Richardson is apparently on pace to play Week 1 and they'll need every bit of his talents to counter the wide-9 approach Philly takes on defense, but he's a rookie and can't be relied upon to pick up extra rushers on passing downs.
When you have a guy like Brandon Weeden, who is coming from a shotgun college offense and trying to assimilate him into a West Coast offense, there are going to be growing pains. Against largely base personnel and vanilla schemes in the preseason, he hasn't looked great. Greg Little and Mohamed Massaquoi clearly have the ability to play in this league, but neither of them are burners who are going to consistently beat man-to-man coverage. Josh Gordon has had an impressive camp and preseason and could figure into the picture here.
Yet, when you add it all up there is nothing about this Browns offense that is going to scare the Eagles—or anyone else for that matter. They are average to below-average across the board and must put it all together to overcome one of the most aggressive defenses they'll face all year.
The Eagles D-line is going to roll two sets of starters, wave after wave, and rely heavily on DeMeco Ryans and the safeties to gobble up anything that comes through the gaps. Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rogers-Cromartie both have a year of Juan Castillo's system under their belts and should be a lot more comfortable in their 2012 roles—especially DRC who moves from the slot back to his natural outside CB position.
Pick your Poison
Things aren't any brighter when the Philly offense comes on to face the Browns defense. Yes, Joe Haden is a dynamite talent at the back, but the Browns pass defense stats were kinda skewed since so many teams ran right over the front seven last year. Phil Taylor and Chris Gocong are out with injuries, and Scott Fujita isn't eligible to return until Week 4. LeSean McCoy can take advantage of this front via the ground or the air and he'll be one of the key components keeping this defense off balance.
The wild card is obviously Mike Vick. There is always the risk of injury and turnovers and he's never really lived up to the level that he displayed to win the starting job two years ago. Luckily for him there is so much talent around him that it takes a catastrophic performance to mess things up. Jeremy Maclin is ready for a break out season and Desean Jackson is paid and happy on the other side.
Home Field DIS-Advantage?
Unless you have your own set of home field advantage rankings, it's not easy to determine just how much to handicap for location of venue. The standard philosophy is to give the home team 3 points on the spread, but a recent analysis I came across has challenged this assumption. They found that early in the NFL season, home field is worth considerably less than later in the year. This isn't ground-breaking information, but the raw data suggests that home teams shouldn't be given more than 2 points in the first month except for specific teams.
Another article I read indicated that 'public' teams traveling to smaller markets or perennially poor teams venues should be given particular focus. The Eagles at the Browns qualifies as one of those situations. Philadelphia fans travel really well and will be in full force at Cleveland in Week 1.You can read the full article by Chad Millman from ESPN here.
It might seem crazy to lay this much on a road favorite to open up a season, but I believe -7 is the magic number to pull the trigger here. For the Eagles, both sides of the ball have continuity entering the year and we'll finally begin to see the potential they were supposed to have last year. The Browns simply have too many young pieces at key positions and not enough quality depth to stay within striking distance for an entire 60 minutes.
NFL Pick: PHI -7.