All things considered, it was perhaps the most disappointing game of Browns’ 2008 season.
After opening the season 0-3, Cleveland battled back to win three out of its next five games, ultimately sitting at 3-5 as they prepared to take on the Denver Broncos at home on Thursday Night Football.
Leading 23-10 early in the third quarter, it appeared that the Browns would improve their record to 4-5 and salvage some semblance of an opportunity to make a late season charge at the playoffs.
The Broncos were only able to muster a field goal in the third quarter, meaning the Browns were nursing a 23-13 lead as the fourth quarter began. I was at the Browns Backers that night, as I usually am during Browns games, and for the first time since the opening week of the season, I felt genuine optimism.
We win this game, we’re right back in this thing, was the thought permeating the room.
We know how that turned out.
Over the next 15 minutes of play at Cleveland Browns Stadium, the door was shut on the Browns’ 2008 season for good. You all remember what happened: Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald forgot how to play cornerback, and another chapter in the over-hyped legend of Jay Cutler was written.
Cutler threw 3 TD passes in the fourth quarter, with the 93-yarder to Eddie Royal that started the barrage seeming to break the Browns’ back, even though Cleveland still led 23-20. Cutler would add subsequent TD passes to Daniel Graham and Brandon Marshall on his way to 447 passing yards on the evening.
Despite a solid game from starter Brady Quinn, and the best rushing performance of the year for Cleveland (160 yards, 5.5 yard average), the Browns ended the night a demoralizing 3-6. They would win the next week at Buffalo before proceeding to drop their last six games of the season.
Would 2008 have turned out any differently had the Browns been 5-5 instead of 4-6 after Week 10? Who knows. Probably not. But I know one thing: the sting of last season would have been a little less severe had that fourth quarter embarrassment against the Broncos not occurred.
Sunday afternoon, the Browns will have their opportunity for vengeance.
Here are the particulars:
Cleveland Browns (0-1) at Denver Broncos (1-0)
- Browns-Broncos Date: Sunday, Sept. 20
- Browns-Broncos Time: 4:15
- Browns-Broncos TV Network: CBS
- Browns-Broncos Announcers: Bill Macatee and Steve Beuerlein
- Browns-Broncos Point Spread: Broncos -3.5
- Browns-Broncos Over-Under: 37.5
- StubHub: Browns-Broncos tickets as low as $42!
Last week, my preview and analysis of the Vikings-Browns game unfortunately proved prophetic.
The Vikings are quite possibly the worst matchup in the NFL for the Browns, and it showed on Sunday. Cleveland played very well in the first half, but the Browns’ inability to run and stop the run doomed them to a disappointing second half.
This week, my Browns preview will not be nearly as pessimistic. Unlike last week, when I listed out the three reasons the Browns would lose and then provided three things that had to happen for them to even have a chance, this week will be much easier.
I’m giving you three reasons why the Browns will win on Sunday. Because they will. Chime in with your prediction, then read mine.
Note: There is a poll embedded within this post, please visit the site to participate in this post's poll.
Three reasons the Browns will win on Sunday
1 – The Browns’ biggest weakness, run defense, is marginalized by Denver’s unproven rushing attack
The Broncos have long been known as a running team, ever since Terrell Davis began the legendary run of 1,000-yard backs that Mike Shanahan seemed to pluck off of the trees outside the Broncos’ practice facility. There was Terrell Davis and Mike Anderson and Clinton Portis and Mike Bell, and on and on and on.
Their rushing prowess also led to consistent success and many playoff berths for the Broncos, with the franchise winning at least eight games every year between 2000-2006 after winning 37 games in three years between 1996-1998.
But Denver has not had a 1000-yard back since Tatum Bell ran for 1,025 yards in 2006. Not coincidentally, they haven’t had a winning season since 2006. Also not coincidentally, 2007 is the season Jay Cutler took over as their quarterback.
The end result is that by last season, the Broncos were 12th in the league in rushing at 116.4 yards per game. That is actually impressive when you consider that they did not have a back eclipse 343 yards, with Shanahan employing a revolving door of Michael Pittman, Peyton Hillis, Selvin Young, Tatum Bell, Andre Hall, and others.
(Note: the picture above is rumored to have been taken after Shanahan was shown the Broncos’ final 2008 rushing statistics. I cannot confirm this, however.)
The Broncos’ transition from a running team to a passing team was essentially complete at the end of last year, with the results obvious: a 15-17 record during the 2007 and 2008 seasons with no playoff berths.
In 2009, Jay Cutler has been replaced by Kyle Orton and the Broncos are counting on a rookie first round draft pick, Knowshon Moreno, and a career backup, Correll Buckhalter, to carry the load on offense.
One would think that the Broncos’ Week One matchup might have offered a chance for the running game to get going early in the season. The Cincinnati Bengals were 21st in the league in rushing defense last year. However, the Broncos’ offense struggled all day, netting a total of 302 yards with Buckhalter and Moreno combining for just 65 yards on 16 carries.
Certainly, I and everyone else expect them to have more success running the ball against the Browns, a team that few have been worse than over the past few years at stopping the run. But the Broncos will not be able to run roughshod all over Cleveland like the Vikings did.
Minnesota blew the Week One game open in the second half because Adrian Peterson is an absolute beast. In the first half, Cleveland actually played very well and contained the Vikings on the ground. On Sunday, I expect the Browns defensive performance to be much closer to the first half of Week One as opposed to the second half.
I’m sure that Denver will get 110-120 yards on the ground. The Browns are not going to miraculously become a good defense against the run overnight. But I do believe they will be able to contain the Broncos enough, like Cincinnati did, to make Kyle Orton beat them.
I’ll take my chances with Kyle Orton, which me leads to reason No. 2 why the Browns will win on Sunday...
2 – I’ll take my chances with Kyle Orton
The Broncos beat the Browns last year because Jay Cutler, despite his uneven record as a starting quarterback, is supremely talented and capable of getting into a zone that few QBs in the NFL can match. Cutler also had a great rapport with WRs Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, and it was certainly on display last season.
That said, Cutler is douchy, inconsistent, and has poor leadership skills, which in my mind makes him a hugh risk as a franchise QB. Obviously though, none of that mattered in the fourth quarter last year.
In Week One, Orton finished the game with solid numbers: 17-28, 243 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs. But take away his fluky touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley that won the game, and this is what his numbers would have been: 16-27, 146 yards, 0 TDs.
Against Cincinnati’s defense.
I realize the irony of a Browns fan criticizing another team’s offense, but the Broncos offensive attack just does not scare me. If the Browns can contain the Broncos’ running game, which I believe that we will, it will put the onus on Kyle Orton to win the game.
Despite the fluky madness that ended last week’s game—for which Orton gets no credit, sorry—I don’t believe Kyle Orton will be able to get the job done.
The truth is that I see the Broncos and Browns as very similar teams. Both teams’ running games have potential, but have shown nothing yet. Both teams have pedestrian QBs that are incapable of winning games on their own. Both teams also have defenses with some obvious strengths, but also some very obvious holes and debilitating weaknesses.
So, considering that the Broncos are playing at home, what leads me to believe that the Browns will win on Sunday?
3 – Sunday’s game will be a close one in which special teams make a huge difference; the Browns have the decided advantage in this area.
No discussion of the Browns’ special teams can begin anywhere but with the best special teams player in the NFL: Joshua Cribbs.
In case anyone needed a reminder of Cribbs’ greatness, he took a punt 67 yards to the house last Sunday against the Vikings. For his career, Cribbs averages 11.1 yards per punt return and has score twice. On kickoffs, Cribbs averages 26.3 yards per return and has scored five times.
Eddie Royal, who handles the return duties for Denver and did so last year as well, has yet to score in his young career and falls short of Cribbs’ averages in both areas.
Kicker is another area where the Browns have an advantage.
Phil Dawson has made of 82.9 percent of his kicks over his successful career, with numerous clutch game-winners over the past two seasons. He may not have the strongest leg in the NFL, but he’s 12-14 between 40-49 yards over the past two seasons and did kick a 56-yarder last season.
Matt Prater, who handles placekicking duties for Denver, is only a 70 percent career kicker despite going 2-2 in Week One on a couple of long kicks. Last season, he was only 5-11 from 40-49 yards.
In a close game, I’ll take my chances with our far more proven kicker.
The Browns also have the more consistent punter and punt coverage unit. In 2008, Dave Zastudil averaged 45.5 yards per punt, pinned the other team inside their 20-yard line on 30.7 percent of his kicks, and the Browns gave up an average punt return of only 7.3 yards, good for an overall net of 42.3. Also, 43 of Zastudil’s punts were fair caught.
Brett Kern handles the punting duties for Denver, and while he averaged 46.7 yards per kick in 2008, he only pinned the opposing team inside its 20-yard line on 28.3 percent of his kicks. Additionally, the Broncos gave up 4.5 more yards per punt return (11.8) than the Browns, which resulted in a net punt average of 39.6 for Kern.
Here is the best thing about Kern from a Browns perspective: he kicks it long but they are returnable. Whereas only 42.6 percent of Zastudil’s punts were returned in 2008, 60.8 percent of Kern’s were returned. This only accentuates our advantage in the return game and makes Cribbs even more of a factor.
In a game between two subpar offenses, the hidden yardage of the return game could be huge. Points will most likely be at a premium, and the team can put itself in the best position to score with solid field position will most likely end up on top.
Hence why I believe the Browns will win on Sunday.
I don’t think that Denver is a very good team this year. I’m not sure that the Browns are a good team either, but I do believe we are better than the Broncos.
What does give me a little bit of pause in picking Cleveland to win this Sunday is the fact that the game is in Denver, which has always been a tough place for opponents to play. Between the rowdy fans, the altitude, and the typically strong teams Denver has had, coming into the Mile High city and getting a W has never been easy.
But after the huge withdrawal that the Broncos made from the football karma bank last week, improbably snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, they are ripe for a little payback in Week Two. Add this impending karmic payback to the payback the Browns will already have on their minds after last season’s fourth quarter debacle, and Browns fans have yet another reason to believe.
Last season, the Browns outplayed the Broncos for 45 minutes and then simply ran into a 15-minute fourth quarter buzz saw that could not be stopped. That threat is now gone with Jay Cutler replaced by Kyle Orton.
I think Sunday’s game will be much more like the first three quarters of the 2008 matchup than it will be like the final quarter. In fact, it will probably even be a little closer.
But if you take away that final quarter, the Browns would have won in ‘08.
One year later, with special teams being the difference, the Browns will finish the job.
Take the Browns and the points but understand that you won’t need them:
Cleveland Browns 17 | Denver Broncos 16
* – Jay Cutler in Browns-Broncos ‘08 photo credit: Duncan / AP via New York Daily News
* – Joshua Cribbs photo credit: Bleacher Report
* – Phil Dawson photo credit: Waiting For Next Year