They simply aren’t the Browns of old.
Here’s everything you need to know about this Week 16 AFC contest.
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, Colo.
When: Sunday, Dec. 23 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Listen: Sirius XM Radio: 137 or online at Audio Pass
Betting Line: Denver by 14
What’s At Stake?
Denver will attempt to clinch the second seed in the AFC and a first-round bye. It seems like it has far more to gain in victory than the Browns, but not so fast.
Cleveland has been out of the playoff race for months yet it remains competitive. And the more its youthful offensive trio of Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson and Josh Gordon play together, the easier it’ll be to pull off wins in the future.
Browns Injury Report (via ESPN, as of Dec. 18)
James-Michael Johnson (knee), LB, Injured Reserve
T.J. Ward (knee), S, Injured Reserve
Broncos Injury Report (via ESPN, as of Dec. 17)
Demaryius Thomas (shoulder), WR, Probable
Fantasy Start ‘Em, Sit ‘Em and Sleeper
Start: Eric Decker
The Browns' Joe Haden is back to being a shutdown cornerback, but he can’t cover both sides of the field. He’ll likely be matched up with Demaryius Thomas most of the game which will free up Decker to build off his phenomenal performance from last week.
Against the Baltimore Ravens, he reeled in eight receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown. Playing catch with Manning, his ceiling is high.
Sit: Trent Richardson
Even with his recent barrage of touchdowns, Richardson has been hot and cold this season. He’s only averaging 3.5 yards per carry so he only a dependable starter in the right matchup.
Unfortunately, Denver’s second-ranked run defense isn’t the right matchup.
Sleeper: Knowshon Moreno
Moreno has rushed for 237 yards and two touchdowns in his last two outings.
Cleveland may have forced 23 fumbles this season—the seventh-most in the league—and Moreno has had his fumbling problems, but if he holds onto the football, he’ll be worth a start.
What They’re Saying
According to Bill Simmons of ESPN, Browns fans should be absolutely giddy about their new team president:
So happy for Alec Scheiner - a Sloan Conference staple and one of the smartest people I've met in sports. Just as happy for Browns fans.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) December 18, 2012
Trey Wingo of ESPN also gave Broncos fans a reason to smile as he tweeted:
Only one team right now has a top five offense AND a top five defense. That would be your Denver Broncos. Most complete team in the NFL?— trey wingo (@wingoz) December 18, 2012
Browns Player to Watch: T.J. Ward
Ward is a baller.
The Browns’ hard-hitting safety is fourth on the team in tackles with 50 solo take downs on the season, and he’s also forced three fumbles along with an interception.
And perhaps most importantly, he makes receivers think twice about high-pointing a football over the middle.
Broncos Player to Watch: Peyton Manning
Manning has transformed a team which needed a miracle to advance out of the first round of the playoffs last season into one that is now a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Because of that, he’s in the discussion to win MVP honors.
His passer rating of 103.5 would be the third-highest of his illustrious career. And Manning’s four neck surgeries increase the impressiveness of his spectacular season even further.
Key Matchup: Demaryius Thomas vs. Joe Haden
Cleveland is 0-5 without Haden in the starting lineup this season and 5-4 with him. And despite missing a large chunk of the current campaign, Haden is still tied for first on the team in interceptions with three.
Thomas is having a career year catching passes from Manning. He’s racked up 78 receptions for 1,210 yards and eight touchdowns.
But he will be matched up with Haden, so something has to give.
On the Hot Seat: None
Given that the Broncos are one of the hottest teams—if not the hottest team—in the league, it’s safe to say that John Elway couldn’t be happier with John Fox.
And on the other sideline, Pat Shurmur has given the city of Cleveland a reason to be optimistic about the future—which is just as impressive as what Fox has done in Denver.
Cleveland will compete for four quarters because it’s what the Browns have done all season long. A 14-point spread is disrespectful and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it fire them up enough to give the Broncos a scare.
But ultimately, Denver has too much talent and momentum to suffer a letdown.
Expect Denver to win by 10.
David Daniels is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report and a syndicated writer.