Cleveland Browns 2011 Predictions: Outcomes for the Final 8 Regular Season Games
One preseason game down for the Browns and three to go before we're off and running on the 2011 regular season, and that means it's time to start analyzing the matchups the Browns will be facing this year.
First, let's acknowledge the elephant on the page here—it is way, way too early to start predicting the outcome of regular season games.
Truthfully, I'm really not in the business of predicting scores or even wins anyway. I'll leave that to Princess the camel, who is quite possibly the world's most accurate football analyst.
However, analyzing how the matchups between the Browns and their opponents is a different story. Of course, until rosters are set and the teams start to come together, it's tough to provide any sort of absolute comparisons between opponents, but it's never too early to take a shot at it anyway, right?
On Wednesday, I issued my predictions for the first eight games of the Browns' 2011 season.
Now it's time to take a look at games nine through 16. These games are a long way off, but the second half of the season, at least at this point, definitely looks scarier for the Browns than the first half. While the schedule makers cut us a couple of breaks in the first eight games, Cleveland is facing a really tough lineup of opponents in part two of the 2011 season.
The following slides are my predictions analyzing the matchups for the Browns in the final eight games of the season, focusing on examining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and how they could help or hurt the Browns each week.
1. Sunday, November 13 vs. St. Louis Rams, 1:00 p.m.
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Game nine for the Browns will pit head coach Pat Shurmur against his former team, the St. Louis Rams.
Obviously, that will be the big headline going into this game, but I think the more important comparison lies in what each of these teams has done in developing talented but young rosters.
Sam Bradford vs Colt McCoy is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, but in a way, they're very much in the same boat: young QB thrust into a leadership role very early, questionable receiving corps to throw to and part of an offense that is heavily reliant on one running back.
Which leads us to the Steven Jackson vs. Peyton Hillis debate. This could very well be what this game comes down to: which defense can contain the ground game of its opponent? This is especially true considering both teams are very unproven at WR and neither has a set group of starters at the position yet. St. Louis is in a similar situation to the Browns in that they've got nine or 10 WRs currently competing for roster spots, very few of whom are a lock to get one.
Defensively, the edge currently goes to the Rams, but not by much. And that could very well change by the time this game rolls around. Acquiring SS Quintin Mikell should help their secondary, but their linebacker corps, much like that of the Browns, is very questionable at the moment.
Bottom Line: This game is essentially the finish line in a race between these two teams to see whose youngsters can evolve into bona fide NFL talent faster. St Louis has the edge with Bradford at QB, given the experience he's already racked up in a short period of time, but I believe the Browns will have the better defense at this point in the season. I think Cleveland can win this one, but if they don't, I wouldn't consider it a surprising loss.
2. Sunday, November 20 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, 1:00 p.m.
For several years now, the Jaguars seem to be one of those teams that is perpetually riding the fence. They're never too good, but they're never too bad, either.
It's an interesting matchup for the Browns from a developmental perspective when you look at both teams over several seasons. While the Jags have been consistently better than the Browns, it looks as though the Browns will catch up and surpass them before long.
Beginning with the obvious, you have to wonder who will be the starting QB for the Jaguars by this point in the season. I don't think the team wants to throw first-round pick Blaine Gabbert out there right off the bat, but if the team is on the cusp of contending, say, for a wild card spot, and David Garrard isn't getting the job done, there may be some movement. That said, Garrard is a better QB than he often is credited as, though, I'm not sure I see him as a difference maker in this game or for the Jags on the whole.
Primarily, the Jaguars' weakness is in their secondary, so to win this game the Browns receivers will be a key element. We've talked a lot this offseason about how the Browns WRs need to improve on their yards-after-catch, and this game should be a good test of that. If the Browns can exploit the DB weaknesses of the Jaguars, it could get them a win.
Bottom Line: Here's looking at you, Greg Little, Brian Robiskie and Josh Cribbs. These three, if they step it up, can win this game for the Browns.
3. Sunday, November 27 at Cincinnati Bengals, 1:00 p.m.
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Here we go again. The second matchup of the season with the Bengals is an absolute must-win for the Browns.
If we assume they win the first contest against the Bengals in Week 1, then it's especially important for them to win the encore, particularly to prove that being on the road doesn't weaken their game.
That said, as long as they're smart about this matchup and don't underestimate what strengths the Bengals do have, there's no reason the Browns can't emerge victorious here. I don't think QB Andy Dalton is going to scare anyone, and the Bengals' defense is nothing short of a disaster, so the key will be to keep RB Cedric Benson in check and for the Browns to not beat themselves with carelessness or needless errors.
Bottom Line: Playing in the same division as the Bengals' defense is a gift. Cleveland can control their own fate in this game, and as long as they play smart, they can come out of it a winner. The Browns have to win this one, and they will.
4. Sunday, December 4 vs. Baltimore Ravens, 1:00 p.m.
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Just as being in the same division as the Bengals is a gift, being in the same division as the Ravens is a curse.
The only real knock on the Ravens is generally that a lot of their premier talent is aging, but the Ravens did a great job of neutralizing that issue this offseason by doing (as much as it pains me to say this) an excellent job in the draft and on the free-agent market.
Looking specifically at how the Browns match-up with the Ravens, the biggest problem for Cleveland will be, as always when it comes to Baltimore, the fact that the Ravens are absolutely deadly in shutting down the run. In other words, Peyton Hillis can't carry this one on his shoulders.
That means the Browns' passing game will have to be in top form for them to have a shot to win this game, or even keep it close. Unfortunately, the Ravens' defense is pretty darn good against the pass, too, but a pass-driven offensive strategy is at least a better bet against them than a run-driven one is.
On the other side of the ball, the Ravens aren't quite as tough, but they're still very, very good. Their offense can be contained, but it's not exactly an easy thing to do. The Browns' questionable LB corps will have a lot to prove in this game, as getting to QB Joe Flacco will be a key element in whether Cleveland can stay competitive in this matchup.
Bottom Line: The Ravens are certainly beatable, but not at all easily so. The Browns beat better teams than the Ravens last season, but they failed to beat Baltimore at all. An upset is possible but highly unlikely for the Browns. I don't see a win happening for them here.
5. Thursday, December 8 at Pittsburgh Steelers, 8:20 p.m.
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Thanks a lot, NFL. Pitting the Browns against the Steelers the week after they have to face the Ravens is just plain mean, and only seems meaner when you consider that the same thing will happen again in the last two games of the season.
Obviously as Browns fans, we all live to beat the Steelers, but wishing unfortunately won't make it so.
The Steelers are getting older, but they're still probably the toughest team the Browns face, made tougher by the fact that they have to face them twice each year.
I think what the Browns can really hope to get out of this game is more about the learning experience than about winning. The team the Browns are building should be able to compete with and potentially beat the Steelers eventually, but they aren't there yet.
The Steeler D is as steely as ever, and they know how to shut down the Browns better than anyone. They don't have much in the way of offensive weaknesses, either.
What's important for the Browns here is probably to test what does work against Pittsburgh and what doesn't, so that when they get to the point where they can truly compete for the AFC North crown in (hopefully) 2012, they'll know what the best plan of attack is.
Bottom Line: No one likes to learn things the hard way, but when trying to improve your chances against the Steelers, the hard way is the only way there is. It's very unlikely that the Browns can win this one, so they should focus on keeping the score close and sizing up the Steelers' possible weak points so that they can hope to exploit them in the future.
6. Sunday, December 18 at Arizona Cardinals, 4:15 p.m.
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A faux bye week or a trap game? That's the question that will likely be on everyone's mind as the Browns travel to Arizona for their 14th game of the season.
Way back in the spring, this game looked like just about the greatest gift the Browns could have gotten, especially as a sort of "take a breather" matchup sandwiched between two sets of successive games against the Steelers and Ravens.
Unfortunately, though, the Cardinals did not take the offseason lying down, drafting well and picking up solid free agent talent to improve their troubled team.
The headliner was of course the trade for QB Kevin Kolb, which certainly makes this matchup look a lot different than it did a month ago. Alas, there goes the validity of the "faux bye week" joke we were all making about this game all through the offseason. Looks like the Browns will need to bring their A game to Arizona after all.
That said, though, I'm of the school of thought that Kolb, while a perfectly respectably good QB, is very overrated. I'm certainly not saying I don't think he's a viable NFL quarterback, but I'm not sure he's really a true marquee player.
That the Cardinals' offense will improve with Kolb at the helm is unquestionable, but I don't think Kolb is going to save the franchise all by himself. As much as he improves the Cardinals' passing game, he can't help their defense, and that's where the door was left open for the Browns to get a decisive victory here.
Bottom Line: Kolb and the Cards' offense will score a decent amount of points against the Browns, so the Cleveland offense is on the hook if they're going to win this one. It won't be as easy as we thought it would have been a few months ago, but the Browns still can and should come out on top in this one.
7. Saturday, December 24 at Baltimore Ravens, 1:00 p. m.
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Nothing says "Merry Christmas" less than a trip to Baltimore. Unfortunately, we're getting the Ravens from Santa this year, whether we like it or not.
Having already assessed how the Browns matchup with the Ravens in their first contest against them in early December, what is important about this game should be how much the Browns are able to adjust and learn from their mistakes when they face them for a second time.
I consider this a very, very high stakes game. If the Browns could take down Baltimore on Christmas Eve, they could prove to themselves, their fans and the rest of the league that they are on their way to becoming a competitive force to be reckoned with in the NFL. Losing this one would be heartbreaking; winning it would be the single biggest validation for the Browns in over 10 years.
Bottom Line: At the risk of sounding like a deluded, crazed optimist, I'm going to say the Browns can win this one. Merry Christmas, Cleveland.
8. Cleveland. Sunday, January 1 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, 1:00 p.m.
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New year, new Browns? It's fitting in a way that the Browns final contest of the season will be played against the Steelers on New Year's Day. As to how they fare in this one will be a good indication of what we can expect in the next football season in 2012.
Many of us have said we think the Browns can contend in 2012, though, none of us meant the first day of 2012 and the last game of this season when we said that. So no, despite my claims that the Browns will be an AFC North contender in 2012, I don't think they can take down Pittsburgh on day one of the calendar year and the final day of this season.
As was the case with the Ravens, a lot of what will be important in this game is to see how well the Browns adjust and learn from their first contest against the Steelers a few weeks before this one.
Last season ended badly when the Browns got trounced by the Steelers at the end of 2010. It was Colt McCoy's worst game, peppered with interceptions and general ineffectiveness. Avoiding a similar meltdown at the end of 2011 isn't just important, it's imperative.
Luckily, I think McCoy and the rest of the Browns are already much better than they were at the close of 2010, despite not having played a regulation game since then. I don't expect miracles, but I do fully expect not to be blown out again to close the season.
Bottom Line: I don't see much chance for a win here, but I do see a very good chance for the Browns to hang tough against a good team and end the season on a high note, leaving the Cleveland faithful with a great sense of anticipation of positive things to come in 2012.