The Browns are 3-3 and looking to close out the halfway point of the NFL season above .500. The 49ers have a comfortable lead in the NFC West and look like a good bet for a playoff berth.
The Browns have won the last two meetings, but this is clearly a different Niners team than the Browns saw in 2003 and 2007.
Cleveland has a difficult task ahead of it on Sunday, looking for a win on the road against a tough team that has suffered just one loss so far this season. Here are six keys to the game for the Browns to beat the 49ers and wind up a 4-3 team after eight weeks of play.
While the Browns have been surprisingly good on defense overall this season, they've been beat up badly by opponents' running games. They gave up huge totals to Chris Johnson of Tennessee and Darren McFadden of Oakland and were also slowly chipped away at for rushing yards by other teams with far less explosive running backs.
Since the Browns' defense has had trouble even with some of the league's more mediocre rushers, 49ers' standout RB Frank Gore will not be a welcome sight this Sunday.
The Browns have given up an average of 119.5 rushing yards per game, and most predictions place Gore's totals for this Sunday around 80-85 yards and a touchdown. If the Browns want to pull off an upset in San Francisco, they cannot let that happen.
Ideally, the rush defense needs to hunker down and keep Gore from running up any gaudy rushing totals. But if that isn't realistic, then the Browns need to go about this another way.
That is, keep Gore off the field as much as possible. That means taking an early lead and then committing to the run on their own offense despite the 49ers' respectable run defense in order to control the clock and keep Gore's opportunities to a minimum.
Thus far in the 2011 season, the Browns have yet to score a first quarter touchdown. Perhaps "kick" was a poor choice of words above, as that's exactly what we don't want the Browns limiting their first quarter scoring attempts to for once.
Since Week 1, Browns fans have been griping about how the Browns spend the entire first quarter (and sometimes the second as well) either looking like they just rolled out of bed or like they're in a mad panic.
They seem to oscillate between sloppy and frantic or lazy and unproductive early in games, wasting valuable time and often putting themselves at a scoring deficit that they can't recover from in the amount of time they have left when they finally snap out of it.
Coach Pat Shumur needs to prove he can motivate his team and effectively call plays the moment the clock starts ticking, and he needs to do it now. We're at the halfway point of the season; to be without a first quarter touchdown at this stage is inexcusable.
Scoring early is especially important in this game. As I mentioned, the Browns need to minimize Frank Gore's opportunities by keeping the San Francisco offense off the field as much as possible.
To do that, they'll need to use the pass early, taking advantage of the 49ers' weaknesses against an aerial assault, put points on the board in the first 15 minutes, and get a decent lead, if possible, so they can then go to a run-based offense and control the clock and the number of chances the 49ers have to score later in the game.
The superstitious contingent of NFL fans must be a having a field day with the many woes of Peyton Hillis this season, who looks every bit the Madden Curse victim.
I personally don't buy it, but that's mostly because I figure the Browns are so cursed on their own that any new, incoming curses are simply rendered moot upon arrival.
In all seriousness though, the Browns have to find a way to better deal with the frequent absence of Hillis from the field this season. He's missed or been limited in enough contests by now that the Browns should have Plan B down pat.
Last week was the first time I saw a good Hillis backup plan manifest on the Browns' offense. Montario Hardesty will never be Hillis, but the Browns found a way to use him effectively last week and he stepped up and filled in for Hillis as best he could.
Much credit for the effectiveness of the running game last week has to go to Hardesty rather than the game plan the Browns concocted, but the team and their play-calling certainly gets some credit for that and also for the effective use of their second back, Chris Ogbonnaya, who was signed just last week and did a very nice job in his first game with the Browns.
Part of the reason that their Plan B worked well (or at least better than usual) was that they knew ahead of time that they were going to need it. It was pretty clear by midweek that Hillis wasn't going to play. They seem to have had more trouble when Hillis was out or limited and it caught them by surprise or was a last minute call.
Obviously, you can never be as well prepared for such a scenario if, as has been the case several times in the past and is again the case this week, you can't make the call on your starter until shortly before game time.
But the Browns have been without Hillis enough this season that by now, they should know exactly how it goes. Of course if Hillis is healthy enough, he should start. But if not, the Browns need to have the Plan B for Hardesty and Ogbonnaya down cold before kickoff on Sunday.
Last week against Seattle, special teams won it for the Browns, but they also nearly lost it for them. Amongst the two blocked field goals, the third nearly-blocked field goal, and the kick returned for a TD against them that was called back on bad call by the officials, the special teams unit looked like a total mess.
The timing is unfortunate, as former Browns special teams' coach Brad Seely is now an employee of this week's opponents—the 49ers.
The Browns would have liked to keep Seely—he left of his own accord—but it's especially important for them this week to prove that they can function without him when they face off against him.
Obviously, regardless of who the opposing coaching staff is, the Browns must stop making mistakes on special teams, or they're going to be in trouble. When your offense isn't scoring a lot of points, as is the case with the Browns, special teams' gaffes can be dealbreakers.
First and foremost, the blocking both on field goals and on punts and kick offs has to improve. A lot.
What we saw last week was horrendous and cannot happen again. If the Browns play well, this game could be a close one, and special teams, whether it's about winning by a field goal or preventing a loss on a kick returned for big yardage, could make or break that.
Second, the Browns have to be more productive on their own returns and give their offense better position consistently and improve their opportunities to score.
Coach Chris Tabor has a lot of talent on his special teams unit, but they haven't been effective this season at all. That must change this week, or it could cost them the chance at a win.
The Browns had success last season using their tight ends a lot in the passing game, especially in the red zone.
A lot of the reason for that is because McCoy had no real viable receivers to go to in 2010, but the fact is that this was a formula that worked well for the Browns, and they should continue to use it.
I don't think TEs have been involved nearly enough this season, especially inside the 20. With the 49ers struggling a bit against the pass, it could be especially important to use the TEs effectively this week.
The Browns do have a bit of a deficit at the position at the moment with Ben Watson out with a head injury, but we still need to see a lot more of Evan Moore and even Alex Smith, at least in a blocking and short gain capacity.
On the other side of the ball, TEs will be key as well. The Browns defense has struggled to control opposing tight ends this season, which could be trouble against San Francisco, who has a top-tier TE in Vernon Davis.
So as much as their own TEs have to be more involved on offense, the defense also needs to do a better job against opposing TEs, particularly in the red zone, which has been the biggest problem area for them in this regard.
The Browns' defense has been by far their biggest strength this season, and it seems to get better and better every week.
Last week their defense won it for them, and they could be the deciding factor this week as well. Currently the Browns are ranked third overall in the league in defense. They've done an outstanding job to earn that distinction, but they need to make sure they keep it up this week.
With the offense struggling to score, the defense has to keep San Francisco from doing the same so the Browns will have a chance to eke it out in what could be a close one.
The front seven needs to get to Alex Smith and force him to make mistakes. He's fumbled a lot this season, and his line has done a terrible job protecting him (sound familiar, Browns fans?). But he's also good against the blitz and uses a lot of short drops to get rid of the ball in a hurry before his line caves in. The Browns need to pursue him aggressively and force him to get rid of the ball in a hurry, then hopefully capitalize on any mistakes that result from that.
The secondary needs to stay strong as well. They've struggled this season and looked particularly bad two weeks ago when they were without stud CB Joe Haden, but last week they seemed to wake up and finally have their heads in the game.
They need to continue in that same vein this week if they want to have a shot to beat the 49ers. Haden is about as reliable as they come, but the others need to show they can play well consistently. T.J. Ward needs to stay aggressive and keep his head in the game, Sheldon Brown needs to avoid mistakes and stop looking like he's over the hill, and Mike Adams and Usama Young need to continue their solid play.
This game is the Browns' defense's to win or lose. Let's hope they can produce another good game and hold onto that impressive number three ranking.