In two short weeks the Cleveland Browns will close the book on their disaster 2015 season. But they still have some very meaningful football left to play on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs and next week when the Pittsburgh Steelers visit FirstEnergy Stadium.
If the Tennessee Titans somehow win their next two games, two losses by the Browns would secure them the No. 1 overall pick in April’s 2016 NFL draft. But that isn’t and shouldn’t be weighing on them as they prepare to play these games.
It won’t be on the players at least. Even though the Browns have everything to gain with a loss, and the Chiefs with a win, a team should never approach a competitive sport in that way. The goals of every game should always be to win, improve and evaluate.
The Browns have plenty to play for, including spoiling Kansas City and Pittsburgh’s playoffs aspirations.
We’ll take a look at how they can do that in the preview below.
Offensive Game Plan
The Browns are just 220 yards away from passing for 4,000 yards as a team. That would make this year’s unit the fifth in franchise history and the first since 2013 to accomplish that feat.
And Johnny Manziel is going to need to propel them past that milestone with his arm if the Browns are going to be competitive in Kansas City. He’ll need to minimize mistakes too because the Chiefs are second in the NFL with a plus-15 turnover differential. Ball security will go a long way toward helping his team avoid embarrassment and potentially score the upset.
Manziel has to play above average because the Chiefs have been stingy against the run this season, boasting a top rushing defense that allows just 3.9 yards per carry and 92.2 yards per game—only 81 per contest over their last six.
If their 29th-ranked rushing offense stalls, Duke Johnson’s receiving is vital to their ability to move the ball as a supplemental running game. Mike Pettine said Johnson is nursing a hamstring injury, but he is expected to play, per Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal.
Johnson’s 54 receptions this year is tied for third-most all time among Browns rookies. He’s also second in receptions and fifth in receiving yards among all NFL rookies this season.
Defensive Game Plan
Stop the run. Stop the run. Stop the run.
The Browns allowed a season-worst 183 yards on the ground against backup players Seattle signed off the street. That’s an all-time low for their rush defense, a unit that has been one of the worst in the NFL this season.
They’ll get to try and contain another backup on Sunday in Charcandrick West.
When the Chiefs aren’t creating havoc and scoring points with their defense, they are working the ball steadily down the field with their potent rushing and short-passing attacks.
West flashed during preseason and has stepped in adequately in Jamaal Charles’ absence. After struggling during a three-game stretch, the second-year back has averaged five yards per carry in his last two games.
They’ll also use Ohio native Spencer Ware, if available, and Knile Davis in a multi-pronged attack that really sets the tone for their offense.
Playing fundamental football and not getting sucked into counter, reverse or play-action motion will go a long way for the Browns, who have seemed lost in those scenarios at times this season.
Stopping the run will force KC quarterback Alex Smith to beat them, and the Browns have shown the ability to play pretty good pass defense when opposing teams aren’t able to run roughshod all over them.
Key Player Matchups
DT Dontari Poe vs. C Alex Mack
Dontari Poe is a monster interior defensive lineman who affects plays by making a direct impact or occupying multiple blockers to allow his teammates to do so.
Poe and Alex Mack are two of the best at their positions, so we’ll see how that pans out on Sunday. The biggest question is whether Mack will need help throughout the game from Austin Pasztor and Cam Erving—both starting because Joel Bitonio and John Greco have been placed on injured reserve.
Neither Erving nor Pasztor had a good game against Seattle in Week 15, so you can bet Andy Reid and his staff are looking for ways to get Poe isolated on them.
LB Karlos Dansby and S Tashaun Gipson vs. TE Travis Kelce
Karlos Dansby has two interceptions he has returned for touchdowns, giving him a share of the NFL lead this season. His coverage skills have been apparent this season, but Chiefs Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce will be a big challenge for the veteran linebacker.
Whether it’s Dansby, safety Tashaun Gipson or another Browns defender tasked with the assignment, Kelce must be contained as one of the key cogs to the Chiefs offense.
WR Travis Benjamin vs. CB Marcus Peters
Travis Benjamin needs to be matched up on rookie Marcus Peters. While he was recently named as a Pro Bowl selection, Peters has had a good share of bad plays alongside some of the highlight-reel clips from his first NFL season.
Cleveland hasn’t taken its shot down the field lately, but this is a perfect matchup to reignite the Manziel-to-Benjamin long-range connection.
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The Chiefs haven’t allowed more than 10 points in a game in seven of their last nine contests. Meanwhile, the Browns have scored more than 13 only once in their past four games.
It’s a road matchup in a hostile environment against a team with a ton on the line. Expectations should be low again, as they were against Seattle in Week 15.
Kansas City should be able to run the ball effectively, and if that happens, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Browns are able to keep scoring pace with their hosts.
Give the Chiefs a win, but it could be a better game than most think it will be if Cleveland can limit Ware and West.
Final Prediction: Chiefs 23, Browns 17
All quotes and team announcements obtained via press releases from Browns communications managers Rob McBurnett and Dan Murphy.