It's the battle of the 3-6 teams in Cleveland this Sunday, as the Browns host the Jacksonville Jaguars and look to snap a three-game losing streak. They are heading into the most difficult part of their 2011 schedule, during which they'll face the Cincinnati Bengals once and the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers twice apiece.
Indeed, the Browns game against the Jaguars this Sunday might be considered one of the last truly winnable ones of the season. However, unfortunately, this doesn't mean much when you're coming off of a 13-12 loss to a Rams team that was 1-7 before they came to town.
Thanks to their ugly records and criticism from their respective fan bases, both teams need a win badly this Sunday. The Browns are one-point favorites on Sunday, likely due to the Jaguars' woefully bad road record and problems in the passing game.
It could be another low-scoring battle on Sunday, as two struggling teams fight to be the last man standing on what might be a very ugly day for weather and field conditions in Cleveland.
Here are five keys to the game for a Browns victory.
Given their severely struggling run defense, it would be nice for the Browns to get to face just one opponent that doesn't have a deadly rushing threat on its roster.
Alas, this won't be the week they catch a break on that, as their problematic run D will square off with RB Maurice Jones-Drew, the fourth-best rusher in the league. He's a player who created a nightmare game for the Browns last season, in which he logged 220 yards rushing and receiving and scored the game-winning touchdown.
The Browns have given up 563 yards in their last three games—not a good sign when facing down a guy who touched you for 220 the last time you saw him. Jones-Drew hasn't slowed down at all this year, rushing for 854 yards on the season and putting up 114 last week.
Stopping the run is always a huge concern for the Browns, who haven't been able to do so against a decent rusher all season. This week it's particularly critical because the Jaguars have very little offense aside from Jones-Drew, so stopping him could shut down their offense completely and give the Browns a very solid chance to win.
Sadly though, the case was much the same for last week's opponent the Rams, who largely relied on RB Steven Jackson. The Browns couldn't stop him, so they couldn't take advantage of the opponent's struggling passing game.
It seems like Jones-Drew can't carry the entire offense on his shoulders alone, but with the Browns struggling to put points on the board, he could be all the Jaguars need for a win.
If the Browns want to come out a victor this week, they'll have to contain Jones-Drew and seriously improve upon their last few dismal performances against the run.
Cleveland sports fans have long memories, but I doubt too many people remember the last time the Browns scored a first quarter touchdown. No one's memory is that good.
In all seriousness, the Browns haven't seen the end zone in the first quarter since last season. They've barely even managed to score much in the way of field goals in the opening 15 minutes of a game this year.
Failing to score any points early in games is obviously a problem against any opponent, as the Browns are perpetually playing the second half in catch-up mode. However, it could be a particularly notable waste of opportunities this week against the Jaguars, who are (believe it or not) even worse at putting points on the board than the Browns.
The Jaguars are second-last in the league in scoring, averaging just 12.8 yards a game. That seems a promising statistic for the Browns until you realize that the only team that ranks behind Jacksonville in points scored is the one Cleveland lost to last week—the Rams.
If the Browns could finally kick the first quarter monkey off their backs, this would be a week where it could pay off immensely.
Given Jacksonville's struggles to score, even one measly first-quarter touchdown could be enough to put the Jaguars in a hole they can't dig their way out of. This would allow the Browns to spread out their scoring more effectively and win, despite their own struggles to score in general.
The Browns and the Jaguars profile somewhat similarly on defense, as both teams are pretty good against the pass, but can't seem to stop the run.
That would have been good news for the Browns if this were 2010, when they found most of their success running the ball. This season, unfortunately, that won't help them much given their struggles to move the ball on the ground.
The Jaguars rank fifth in the NFL against the pass, which means the Browns will be forced to attack on the ground if they want to move the football down the field effectively.
Thus, just as the Jaguars will be relying on Jones-Drew to carry this game on his shoulders for them, the Browns will likely have to rely on RB Chris Ogbonnaya to do the heavy lifting for their own offense.
That's bad news for the Browns—if this comes down to Jones-Drew (the fourth-best RB in the league), vs. ex-practice squad guy Chris Ogbonnaya, the odds don't look too good for Cleveland to come out on top.
On the upside, Ogbonnaya did improve on his previously anemic rushing totals last week against St. Louis, pounding out 90 yards. That wasn't enough to beat the Rams though, and it may not be enough to beat the Jaguars either, particularly if none of the rushes that made up those 90 yards land Ogbonnaya in the end zone, just as they didn't last week.
The Browns would, of course, be foolish to completely abandon the pass, for obvious reasons concerning predictability and also because Ogbonnaya isn't exactly the kind of guy who has yet earned their confidence for carrying the game on his own.
However, they'll still have to rely heavily on the run, no matter their struggles in the area, if they want to emerge from this one victorious.
There's a reason the Jaguars have been forced to place their entire offense in the hands of RB Jones-Drew; their passing game is an absolute mess.
The Jaguars have averaged just 122.1 passing yards a game (the Browns, for the sake of comparison, average 207.1).
That's a nice matchup against the Browns impressive pass defense, which has only ceded an average of 163.3 passing yards per game, which is good for the best mark in the league.
Rookie QB Blaine Gabbert's numbers have been pretty ugly this season, thanks, in part, to a lack of receiving targets, shaky pass protection and some serious accuracy issues.
That means the Browns defense shouldn't have much trouble shutting down the Jags' passing game, and can focus on attempting to stop the run.
None of this, of course, will help the Browns much if they can't put any points on the board aside from a handful of field goals. However, if they can produce even, say, two touchdowns, they could take advantage of Jacksonville's horrific passing game in order to eke out a win.
The Jaguars and the Browns have posted identical 3-6 records to date, which obviously doesn't inspire a confidence boost for either side, but isn't exactly discouraging for the opponent either.
The best news record-wise for the Browns is that the Jaguars are appallingly bad on the road, and Cleveland was lucky enough to have this matchup scheduled as a home game.
Jacksonville is 1-4 on the road this season, and had dropped six straight outside their home stadium going back to last season until last week, when they finally snapped the skid against the hard-luck Indianapolis Colts.
The Browns, who have also beaten the Colts this season, can tell you that doing that doesn't exactly take much, so that means that the Jags' problems on the road are likely far from over.
That means the Browns have a huge opportunity this weekend to take advantage of a team that can't seem to figure out how to win on the road in order to stop the three-game slide they're on.
It also means bad weather could be an advantage for the Browns this weekend, as adverse weather conditions often play into the struggles of bad road teams.
If the Browns can capitalize on the Jaguars' struggles when traveling and grab a victory this week, it would be a huge and much needed confidence boost for them going into the roughest part of their 2011 schedule.