Two wins in two weeks for the Cleveland Browns? Here's how they did it.
This week, they host the two-win Kansas City Chiefs, and a third straight victory would mark the first time the Browns have put together that many wins in a row since their four-game tear to close out the 2009 season. It would also be their fifth win in eight games—not too bad for a team coming off of a 4-12 record in 2011.
So what has gotten the Browns to this point, and what could get them that elusive third-straight win this coming Sunday? Let's take a closer look.
The Emergence of Josh Gordon
While nothing helps the development of a rookie quarterback quite like an established veteran receiver—look at Reggie Wayne and Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, for example—there's a lot to be said for first-year receiver-quarterback tandems who grow together over the course of the season.
While it would be a bit of a reach to say what is happening in Cleveland is the same as what happened in Cincinnati last year with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, there are some parallels that can be drawn between the two, namely that a stellar talent at wide receiver helps bring along a somewhat questionable quarterback in the difficult rookie year.
With the right receivers, any quarterback can look good. Part of the reason that Mark Sanchez is having such a terrible season with the New York Jets this year is because he simply has no one dynamic and reliable to throw to. A quarterback's talents are either limited or highlighted based upon who is catching his passes, and if Cleveland's Brandon Weeden is to remain under center next season, he'll need the help of his receivers to get him there.
The pickup of Josh Gordon in this year's supplemental draft was a controversial choice initially. Gordon hadn't played college football at all in 2011, which immediately brought up comparisons to current Browns receiver Greg Little, who, prior to being drafted by Cleveland in 2011, spent the previous year out of college ball. As a result, his rookie season was plagued with mistakes—mainly drops—that did few favors when it came to the Browns' record or for his quarterback, Colt McCoy.
Gordon started raw and played minimal snaps at the beginning of the season as he worked his way up the Browns' depth chart—he had between 30-40 offensive snaps in the first four weeks, snaps in the 50s in Weeks 5 and 6 and is now playing all but a handful of Cleveland's offensive downs after progress on the practice field translated to success in actual games.
Though Gordon's seemingly best weeks are in the past—the three-game span between Weeks 5 and 7 in which he scored four touchdowns—in reality, he's playing the best football of his season at present. His targets are steadily increasing, with six apiece in Weeks 11 and 12 and seven in Week 13, and he's pulling down more of the passes thrown his way (five, four and six, respectively).
He had his best showing of the year thus far in Week 13 against the Raiders, with 116 yards and a touchdown on those six receptions, is averaging an impressive 19 yards per reception, and his 646 total yards on 60 targets and 34 receptions is better, catch-for-catch, than any receiver with a similar number of targets.
Though it's been known for weeks the benefits Gordon provides Cleveland's offense and Weeden—his ability to stretch the field, the fact that he's a legitimate deep-ball receiver and scoring threat (something the Browns sorely lacked), that he draws coverage to him, allowing other receivers to get open—over this recent spate of Browns success, he's become something even better than that: reliable.
Gordon and Weeden have built trust, and the payoff is more well-thrown balls to Gordon, more catches, more yards and more Browns first downs—23 last week. That means more scoring chances (now sitting at three per game in the past three weeks), better time of possession (it's up to 31:42 over the last three games) and yes, more wins.
The Browns have been in a number of close games this season, only to lose their grasp on victory in the fourth quarter. This hasn't been the case over their two-game win streak, however. In both games, the Browns were victorious by less than a touchdown, rather than losing by that margin.
Against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 12, the Browns held a six-point lead for the final 20 minutes of the game, while they managed to not relinquish the upper hand against the Oakland Raiders in Week 13 despite the Raiders continually threatening to close the margin. That's the kind of progress the Browns absolutely needed to make at some point this season, and though it's come late in the year, it's better than it not happening at all.
Now that the Browns know how to hold teams off from taking wins away from them, their future attempts to do so should come more easily. Granted, had they figured this out earlier, they'd have a much better record right now—three more wins, at least. However, it's played a major role in why the Browns have won their last two games and why they could very well put up a third straight win this Sunday when they host the Chiefs.
All season long, the Browns have been a better team than their record indicated, and now there's tangible proof of that. Establishing a lead is nothing if a team cannot maintain it and the Browns have managed to do so over the past three weeks by playing well on both offense and defense. The team has become more cohesive and as a result, they're playing more consistent and better football throughout all four quarters of their games.