Browns vs. Broncos: 10 Keys to the Game for Cleveland
These clubs will be forever linked by their battles in the 1980s.
Losing three AFC championship matches to the Broncos during that decade and of course "The Drive," still make long-time Browns fans sick.
Although this Week 16 meeting does not quite add up to those epic encounters of the past, the outcome is still important for both teams.
Denver is gunning for home-field advantage, while Cleveland players try to impress management for next season.
There are 10 keys to this game for Cleveland that will help them tame a Denver squad that has won nine straight.
10. Take the Home Crowd out of It Early
Denver has only lost once in six games at Mile High during this 2012 campaign, and that came back in Week 3.
The home-crowd advantage is a major factor, and the thin air that no opposing players are ever used to doesn't help either.
In the Broncos' three defeats they have been outscored 24-5 in the opening quarter.
A first possession score will not only give the Browns early momentum but will also silence the rowdy Colorado fans.
This is more important then some might think.
A quieter atmosphere allows Brandon Weeden to stand under center calmly and not get frazzled. It also lets him clearly hear the plays being called in from the sidelines.
9. Keep Up the Creative Offensive Plays
Trick plays are only effective when they are used sparingly.
Against such a well structured defense as Denver, some creativity on offense may be the tool to ease that sure to be ferocious pass-rush attack.
Head coach Pat Shurmur dusted off the old Wildcat for Josh Cribbs in the past couple of games.
Three carries for 31 yards of production over that span is just often enough to make opposing squads have to prepare for it.
Some reverse and double reverses were called as was for WR Greg Little to line up in the backfield.
The most successful scheme came on special teams versus Kansas City when Cribbs ran up to be part of the block team at the last second, which left rookie Travis Benjamin all alone.
A 93-yard punt returned for a TD later now means that other teams need to worry about two legitimate threats waiting to receive.
8. Don't Forget About the Broncos Rushing Attack
Who knew that Willis McGahee's injury would actually provide a spark to the Broncos running game?
Fourth-year veteran Knowshon Moreno is tearing up the turf as he comes off of back-to-back 100-yard performances.
Denver is persistent with the run, which naturally opens up more passing opportunities for Peyton Manning. Cleveland can expect a steady flow of hand-offs to No. 27.
On top of Moreno, they need to respect change of pace RB Ronnie Hillman.
The San Diego State alum was handed the rock 14 times last week and has broken loose for long gallops multiple times this season.
The Browns defensive front cannot allow for offensive balance to be established.
7. Watch out for the Deep Ball
Strong safety T.J. Ward was put on injured reserve for a knee injury this week. Getting the start in his place is seven-year veteran Ray Ventrone who is primarily used on special teams.
Add in cornerback Dimitri Patterson's release on December 17 and the Browns could be vulnerable to the deep ball from Peyton Manning.
The Bronco's pivot is masterful at deciphering weaknesses in a secondary.
That pass somehow made its way through three Browns defenders and really turned the tide for Washington.
Extremely tight coverage on all parts of the field will need to be a major focus.
6. Do Not Throw Interceptions
Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden's interception troubles have been well documented and were certainly emphasized with another two being tossed a week ago.
Holding onto the ball too long and slow decision making are a couple of areas that cause for open targets to be covered in a hurry.
It has been a challenge all season for the 22nd overall pick and will result in hurried throws, sacks or more batted balls if it continues in Denver.
Another avenue Weeden needs to adjust to is the altitude at Mile High stadium.
On the December 18 edition of ESPN's Cleveland Browns Daily radio show, guest Bernie Kosar gave some sound advice.
The former Browns QB knows better than most what it is like to play in Denver from those AFC championship wars of the 1980s.
He stressed that Weeden should take extra snaps with his receivers to get the timing down for long passes. The thinner air carries the football farther and can result in costly over throws.
5. Hurry Peyton Manning
Getting Peyton Manning off his game is easy to say but is nearly impossible to do.
His success continues to be a remarkable comeback story after he missed all of last season.
The great No. 18 is essentially an extra coach on the field who is an expert at confusing defenses with audibles at the line of scrimmage.
Manning keeps mistakes to a minimum and is incredibly efficient. A 103.5 passer rating, 67.9 completion percentage and 31 touchdown passes back that up.
The 15-year pro is an expert at sensing and avoiding pressure, while still being able to quickly find favourite targets Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
It is imperative that Cleveland's defense plays as a cohesive unit.
The line must generate consistent pressure, and the secondary needs to provide extra tight coverage.
Execution on those two fronts will cause Manning to hesitate and give the Browns their best chance at neutralizing that high-octane attack.
4. Stick with the Run
With Denver's aggressive pass rush it is extra important that the Browns stick with the running game.
In last week's loss Trent Richardson only had two carries in the second half. That is following his pair of rushing touchdowns during the first 30 minutes.
This is simply unacceptable.
Believable play action needs to be there so that the Broncos secondary does not sit back and pick apart quarterback Brandon Weeden.
Sprinkling in Montario Hardesty in the backfield has proven effective in recent weeks. As a change of pace, Hardesty slashes speedily through the holes.
Aside from the Redskins game, No. 20 provided single run bursts of 12 yards or more in four straight matchups.
Although Richardson may not be putting up the production numbers on the ground that everyone expected, he is still Cleveland's most dangerous weapon.
The Alabama Crimson Tide alum's franchise rookie record of 11 rushing touchdowns will draw plenty of attention from John Fox and his coaching staff.
3. Limit the Broncos Pass Rush
Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden will not have the luxury to methodically decide when to release the ball on Sunday afternoon.
The Broncos' eighth-ranked pass defense loves to overpower offensive lines and attack the edges.
Weeden must deliver throws as quickly as possible, while not sacrificing accuracy.
A tall order with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Von Miller breathing down his neck. The outside linebacker owns 16 sacks and six forced fumbles through 14 games.
Denver's pass rush is a two-headed monster.
If dealing with Miller wasn't enough, defensive end Elvis Dumervil creates plenty of havoc on his own to the tune of nine sacks and six forced fumbles in 2012.
Cleveland's O-Line is in for a tough day at the office.
2. Big Plays on Special Teams
Cleveland's offense and defense are obviously in for an uphill battle.
The difference maker for the Browns needs to be their special teams.
Travis Benjamin has not fielded a kick since his record setting 93-yard punt run back went for a score versus Kansas City. This would seem like the game to give him another shot at it.
Josh Cribbs is in his usual fine form when returning punts. The special-teams sensation ranks first in total yards, boasting 439 in 2012.
The club currently sits fourth in yards returned on kickoffs (1,138) as well.
1. Force Denver Turnovers
In Denver's three losses this season they have turned the ball over a combined eight times.
Cleveland is ranked 14th in the turnover ratio category at +1, while the Broncos dwell at 27th and an awful ratio of -12.
However, Peyton Manning has only 10 interceptions all year compared to 31 touchdowns. Three of those INT passes came during the Week 2 loss against Atlanta.
Therefore, it appears that stripping the ball would be the way to go against these streaking Broncos.
Denver is tied for fifth in the league for fumbles lost (13).
The orange and brown are presently in seventh place for creating fumbles with 23 on the season.
Causing an incredible eight turnovers in the Week 12 victory over Pittsburgh, the Browns defense knows they can take over a game.
Can they be the difference makers once again?
We have run the gauntlet of what Cleveland needs to focus on to take down the mighty Broncos.
Time for predictions.
Brandon Weeden: 200 yards passing, one TD and one INT
Running Game: A combined 85 yards and one TD
Defense: One fumble recovery
Peyton Manning: 310 yards passing, two touchdowns and one INT
Knowshon Moreno: 75 yards rushing, one TD and one fumble
Von Miller: 2.5 sacks and one INT
Denver 27, Cleveland 17
Give your game predictions in the comment section of this article.
Follow Andy McNamara on Twitter @AndyMc81