I can’t wait for tomorrow.
The first game of any season is always exciting. There have been no losses yet, no unfulfilled potential, and no bitter taste on the tip of the tongue still stinging from the week before.
It’s a bitter, noxious taste that Browns fans are unfortunately quite familiar with and one that we were forced to choke down on a regular basis last year.
What made 2008 such an exceptionally bad season was the fact that the Browns’ surprising run to 10-6 in 2007 had raised everyone’s hopes and turned them into expectations.
When hopes get trampled, it is easier to accept it and move on. It was just a hope, a wish, right?
There is always a recognized chance that a hope might not come to fruition, thus somewhere in the back of your mind, and in your heart, you are always somewhat prepared for a hope to fall short.
But when expectations are not met, it is crushing.
A deeper layer of vulnerability is exposed when hopes and wishes are transformed into full-fledged expectations. 2008 was a season that started with what now seem like absurdly high expectations for the Browns, but at the time they seemed perfectly reasonable.
That is why the taste was all the more bitter when the team fell so egregiously short of fulfilling the expectations.
And now, here we are on the eve of 2009’s commencing kickoff with little to no idea of what to expect from the 2009 Browns. In 2007 we were supposed to be terrible and went 10-6. In 2008 we were supposed to be great and went 4-12. In 2009 we are supposed to be terrible again…
...and based on the experiences of the last two years, all it means is that we could be really good or really bad and no one would really be surprised.
So, on the preemptive bright side, at least there are no soaring expectations that could precipitate a painful fall like last year. But there also seems to be a glaring lack of hope as well, especially for a team in a league that saw 2007 doormats Miami and Atlanta make the playoffs last year.
I, for one, am actually relatively hopeful about the 2009 Browns.
If anything else, the complete lack of knowledge regarding what we will see on the field this year makes the season seem intriguing. There is a new front office leadership team, a new coach, a semi-new quarterback, several new players including some promising rookies, and a fresh 0-0 record all presaging, if nothing else, a new experience in 2009.
I have done my best to turn the plethora of 2009 unknowns into positives, writing a few weeks back that SI’s Peter King will regret predicting a 2-14 finish for the Browns. Some Browns fans have jumped on my bandwagon of hope, as evidenced by the comment thread of this Plain-Dealer story in which a commenter by the name of “dawgmatist” linked to my article with the following statement:
For those of you (myself included) who will be relying more so on HOPE, rather then EXPECTATIONS this season, here’s a good article I’ve kept and refer to from time to time to help give my spirits a little boost as we approach our season.
And for the most part, I believe what I’m saying.
Eric Mangini has proven he can turn a team around in one season. Braylon Edwards and Kamerion Wimbley are talented enough to become the stars Cleveland needs to anchor its offense and defense. And the addition of James Davis plus an increased role for Jerome Harrison should make the Browns more proficient at running the football.
So...if I’m so excited, you may ask, why in the hell did it take me this long to get my Browns Week One preview and prediction up?
And the forthright answer is that, despite my overall optimism for 2009, I am not at all hopeful about this Sunday’s matchup with Minnesota. I didn’t want to face such disappointing thoughts until it was absolutely necessary.
Right now, the 2009 Browns season is like an early winter morning after a fresh powdering of snow. Everything looks fresh, clean, and pure. There is a chance that school or even work could be canceled. The perfection of the moment has yet to be disturbed.
But at some point, the snow will start to melt, cars will have rendered the streets sloshy and nasty, and the underlying and forgotten about ice might have made the roads unable to be driven on. Eventually you realize that the seemingly lovely blanket of snow is actually nothing but a nuisance that will wreak havoc on your day.
I’ve avoided this preview because I already know that once I’ve finish writing it, the figurative fresh snow of 2009 will have already begun to melt.
Before I delve into the three reasons why the Browns could win on Sunday, and the three reasons why they won’t, here are the particulars to get you ready for Sunday:
Minnesota Vikings (0-0) at Cleveland Browns (0-0)
- Vikings-Browns Date: Sunday, Sept. 13
- Vikings-Browns TV & Kickoff Time: 1:00 ET on FOX
- Vikings-Browns Location: Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland
- Vikings-Browns Announcers: Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick
- Vikings-Browns Point Spread: MIN -4
- Vikings-Browns Over-Under: 40
- StubHub: Browns-Vikings tickets as low as $40
- StubHub: all 2009 Cleveland Browns tickets
- StubHub: all 2009 Minnesota Vikings tickets
- StubHub: all 2009 NFL tickets
And now, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the matchup analysis, getting the negative stuff out of the way first.
Three Reasons Why the Browns DON’T Have a Chance to Beat the Vikings on Sunday
1 – The Vikings running attack seemingly can’t be stopped and the Browns cannot stop the run
This is the A+/No. 1 reason why I see the Browns really struggling to even keep Sunday’s game close. All you need to do is look at the numbers from 2007 and 2008, as they tell the story:
- Minnesota Vikings rushing: 146.1 yards gained per game (fifth in the NFL)
- Cleveland Browns against the run: 151.9 yards given up per game (28th in the NFL)
- Minnesota Vikings rushing: 164.6 yards gained per game (first in the NFL)
- Cleveland Browns against the run: 129.5 yards given up per game (27th in the NFL)
Behind Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, Minnesota will be able to control the game and the clock on the ground. I hope that the Browns are better against the run this year, but this is a hell of a team to find out against. If the Vikings run for less than 150 yards, I will be surprised.
And it’s hard to win games when you give up that much on the ground.
2 – The Vikings are terrific at stopping the run, while the Browns struggle to establish a ground attack
The Vikings running for 150 yards wouldn’t be such a big deal if I felt the Browns had a chance to churn out 125-130 yards of their own on the ground. That would help balance out the clock domination and keep the pressure off of Brady Quinn, who is making his first ever opening week start as the top tog on the depth chart.
While I am hopeful that the Browns’ running attack will be better this year, it wouldn’t really take much based on our ground “success” from last season. Once again, the stats explain this expected Sunday mismatch better than I ever could:
- Cleveland Browns rushing: 100.3 yards per game (26th in the NFL)
- Minnesota Vikings against the run: 76.9 yards per game (1st in the NFL)
- Cleveland Browns rushing: 118.4 yards per game (10th in the NFL)
- Minnesota Vikings against the run: 74.1 yards per game (1st in the NFL)
There was a little bit of hope when it looked like the “Williams Wall” might not be eligible to start the season. However, both of the Williams boys will be out there, meaning a whole lot of one- and two-yard clouds of dust on Sunday, and probably a lot of 3-and-outs because of it.
3 – The team with better players and more stars wins most of the time
This is a truth of sports that you could try to argue with, but you would have absolutely no statistical nor empirical foundation upon which to argue.
And on Sunday, the team with the better roster will be on the sideline opposite my boys in brown.
- The established stars on the Browns include Joe Thomas, Braylon Edwards, a well-past-his-prime Jamal Lewis, Shaun Rogers, and an emerging LB in D’Qwell Jackson.
- The established stars on the Vikings include a past-his-prime Brett Favre, Steve Hutchinson, Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen, Pat Williams, Kevin Williams, and a potential game-breaker in Percy Harvin, among several others.
If we stacked these two lists on a scale, it might tip over and fall towards the direction of Minnesota, and not because of the girth of the Williams boys.
The Browns have improved their roster over the last few years, and have more talent than they are given credit for or showed last year, but have a ways to go to be on par with Minnesota.
Okay, now it’s time to transition from the negative to the semi-positive.
I’ll end the suspense right now, in case you were even still wondering: I am predicting Minnesota to win this game, and to cover the four-point spread. You can scroll down right now if you don’t believe me.
But the phrase “any given Sunday” is the most famous NFL cliche of them all for a reason, and the Browns winning a season-opening game over the Vikings in Cleveland would be far from the biggest upset in NFL history. If it happens, who knows, it might not even be the biggest upset of the day.
It’s just highly, highly unlikely.
But let’s assume the optimistic hypothetical for a moment, just for the sake of argument and for the sake of furthering what few semblances of hope we as Browns fans can cling to heading into kickoff tomorrow. What follows are three reasons (plus an obvious fourth) why the Browns could win.
And if they do end up winning, I can almost guarantee that all three of these things occur (especially the first one!).
Three Reasons Why the Browns DO Have a Chance to Beat the Vikings on Sunday
1 – Home field advantage
Here is some interesting reading for you stat geeks out there (you know, people like me): NFL Home Field Advantage and Team Strength, from Advanced NFL Stats. The post analyzes the varying effect of home field advantage between evenly matched teams and mismatched teams. The scope of the study is the 2002-2006 NFL seasons.
What the study found is that the overall percentage of games won by the home team is 57%. For teams that end up with the same record, and are therefore “evenly matched,” the percentage rises to 63 percent. Conversely, the home field advantage is reduced to 53 percent for “mismatched” teams.
Here is what I take from this, if we assume that the Super Bowl-contending Vikings and my beloved but undermanned Browns are, indeed, a mismatch: there is still a 53 percent chance that the Browns come away victorious.
Hey, I said this section was reasons why the Browns do have a chance. I’d say this quick statistical citation qualifies.
(See, I guaranteed that if the Browns would win, the first reason would almost surely occur. Well, no matter what happens, the game is being played at Cleveland Browns stadium, so I’m right!)
2 – The Browns’ porous 2008 rushing attack could improve to a level closer to 2007’s competence
As stated above, I have little confidence that the Browns will be able to run on Minnesota or stop the Vikings’ rushing attack. To win the game, they will have to at least exceed my expectations in one area. With Adrian Peterson in the Vikings’ backfield, I see very little hope of the Browns containing the Vikings on the ground.
The main reason for this hope, no matter how small it may be, is that the Browns do have versatility, and even a little bit of explosiveness, in their backfield.
- Jamal Lewis is no longer capable of explosive runs, but he can contribute solid short-yardage efforts and help wear down the Vikings’ front seven. He is also a capable blocker and should help keep Jared Allen away from Brady Quinn when he is in the game.
- James Davis is like poor man’s version of a young Jamal Lewis. He has decent quickness to the hole, decent speed, and a good enough combination of elusiveness and power to make the first or second tackler miss. Davis remains unproven, but if he can run in the regular season similar to how he ran in the preseason, the Browns could have a new feature back for the future.
- The perennially underused and underappreciated Jerome Harrison provides big play ability out of the backfield, both as a runner or receiver. He averaged over seven yards per carry last year and has the athletic ability to evade the Vikings’ powerful front seven and pick up yards in chunks.
Now for a quick snap back to reality: the Vikings finished first in the NFL in rushing defense the last two years. Predicting that the Browns can break the century mark on the ground against Minnesota is foolhardy at best, and most likely requires some level of hopeful insanity.
Well, I am not predicting that it will happen. Yet, if James Davis and Jerome Harrison are used more than sparingly, and come to play, it could happen. And I believe that with the inexperienced Brady Quinn at QB and only one proven WR on the outside in Braylon Edwards, the Browns will need to approach or exceed 100 yards on the ground to win this game.
The Lewis-Davis-Harrison trio has intriguing potential, and they do have a decent offensive line to run behind. Maybe, just maybe, the Browns can defy the stats and the odds to produce adequately on the ground. If so, they will have a chance to control the ball, the clock, field position, and possibly put themselves in a position to win the game late.
3 – The Browns’ main defensive strength capitalizes on the Vikings’ main offensive weakness
I have already chronicled the Browns’ woes stopping the run. We also know that opposing QBs do not fear being taken to the ground, as the Browns accumulated only 17 sacks last year, tying for 30th in the NFL. For a little perspective, DeMarcus Ware of Dallas had 20 all by himself.
However, there is one thing that the Browns do well defensively: force turnovers, specifically interceptions. Only Baltimore (with 23) had more inceptions than the Browns’ 22 in 2008. And it wasn’t one player dominating the totals, as the Browns got INT contributions from everywhere on their defense.
- Brandon McDonald led the team with five
- Sean Jones had four
- Eric Wright, Brodney Pool, and D’Qwell Jackson had three
- Mike Adams had two
- Three other players had one
Sean Jones is gone, so his four picks will have to be replaced, with former Jet Abram Elam stepping in as the guy trying to replace them. Elam had only one pick last season, but did return it 92 yards for a TD.
Update: Forgot to check the injury report before posting. Eric Wright is listed as questionable, with Hank Poteat slated to replace Wright if he cannot go. So…please EW…be ready to go.
Also, just so you don’t think I forgot, Bernard Berrian is also listed as questionable for Minnesota. While his absence would hurt Minnesota, I think this game will be decided on the ground, making Berrian’s inability to play somewhat negligible. But it does offer one less way for the Vikings to attack Cleveland should Berrian not be able to go, and obviously would help balance out Wright’s absence if he cannot go either.
Why is this such a positive, especially against the Vikings? Well, you may have heard that Brett Favre is now playing QB for Minnesota. And you also may know that he is the NFL’s all-time leader in virtually QB stat imaginable, including interceptions.
Last year, Favre tossed 22 completions to the other team, and there were only three games in which he did not throw a pick. For his career, Favre has thrown 310 INTs so surely he will gift wrap a few for McDonald, Wright, Pool, et al, right?
It depends on which Brett Favre we see.
He played very conservatively during the preseason, and understands the greatness that lines up behind him. Though it goes against his natural instincts, I am sure that Favre and the Minnesota coaches are committed to him playing a more safe, ball control, game manager brand of football than he is used to playing.
But can an old dog learn new tricks? Can a leopard change its spots? Can a Favre protect the football?
We’ll find out, but the historical evidence leads me to believe that there will be at least one or two balls there for the taking. If so, the Browns’ defenders have proven that they are capable of taking advantage.
Now the caveat: The Browns’ offense will have to take advantage of the turnovers, something that they couldn’t do last year. So we’ll see if that improves this season.
Regardless, I’m just looking for reasons the Browns could win. Forcing turnovers is certainly one reason that we can reasonably expect, and there is no way Cleveland comes away from Sunday victorious without them.
Before we move onto the prediction, I do also want to say that a fourth reason for hope is the presence of Joshua Cribbs. He is capable of changing a game with one kick return, one forced fumble covering a punt, or even in his new purportedly expanded role on offense.
By now, Browns fans should understand that Cribbs’ superb ability is a given, so I didn’t list it as one of my three official reasons.
Okay, now for the moment I’ve been fearing and avoiding: a prediction for this Sunday’s Browns-Vikings game.
You already know that my caveat will be that I hope to be proven wrong. While there are a few legitimate reasons to believe that I will be, I take my prediction responsibilities seriously and try to pick with my head instead of my heart.
If I picked with my heart and dove completely into the lonely waters of Browns optimism, I’d go 17-14 Browns. However, my head says the Browns just aren’t good enough yet, even at home, to overcome Adrian Peterson and the Vikings.
So while I believe that 7-9 or 8-8 is realistically attainable for this year’s Browns, I just can’t see one of those 7 or 8 wins coming tomorrow.
Official Browns-Vikings prediction: Minnesota Vikings 27 | Cleveland Browns 13
And now, in the interests of ending this on a positive, please follow the link to my aforementioned ode to Browns hope in 2009. The Vikings are just not a good matchup for Cleveland, but an 0-1 start will not mean that hope is lost for a successful rebound season in 2009.
* – Adrian Peterson photo credit: Bryan C Singer/Icon SMI via Lester’s Legends
* – Eric Wright photo credit: Tracy Boulian — Associated Press via Washington Post