Browns Take Their Talents To South Beach To Face Dolphins

 

On one side, it's whos there. On the other, it's who's not.

The Miami Dolphins represent the former, and with the imminent returns of wide receiver Brandon Marshall and defensive end Phillip Merling, that could spell trouble for late-season opponents such as this Sunday's foe, the visiting Cleveland Browns.

Merling was activated Tuesday from the reserve/non-football injury list after being shelved since Aug. 31. Marshall, meanwhile, injured a hamstring during a Week 13 loss to Chicago and was lost for last Sunday's 33-17 defeat of the Oakland Raiders.

Also back for that win was quarterback Chad Henne, who threw for 307 yards in helping the Dolphins climb back over the .500 mark and back into the fringes of contention in the AFC's muddled Wild Card playoff race.

Miami opened the season with two straight wins, followed them with two straight losses, and has since alternated W's and L's. It sits two games off the 8-3 pace of the current leader for the conference's final Wild Card spot, the Pittsburgh Steelers, with five to play, and is three in back of both the New York Jets and New England Patriots, who share the top spot in the AFC East at 9-2.

The Dolphins finish with three divisional games in their final four weeks, including a trip to New York, a home date with Buffalo and a season-ending trip to New England.

"Getting Phillip Merling back [at Wednesday's practice] was really good," Miami head coach Tony Sparano said. "I was kind of kidding those guys. I said, 'Well, the boys are back in town.' We finally got that group together that we've seen in [offseason training activities]."

For Cleveland, the absence of quarterback Colt McCoy is making few feel fonder. The University of Texas rookie was lost to a high ankle sprain during a Week 11 loss to Jacksonville and did not play in last Sunday's 24-23 win over 1-10 Carolina.

Former Panther Jake Delhomme piloted the Browns to that one-point victory and has taken first-team snaps this week while McCoy, who's listed as questionable, endured the recovery process. Head coach Eric Mangini said the youngster has made progress and would be monitored heading into the weekend.

"Colt's moving along, but we'll see how it goes during the week," Mangini said. "From where we were last week to where we are now, we've made a pretty big jump."

Delhomme, who hadn't started since Week 1 because of a high ankle sprain of his own, was 24-of-35 against Carolina with two interceptions, giving him six picks this season against only one touchdown pass.

"There were a ton of good plays there," Mangini said. "[Delhomme] moved the offense really well. I thought the offense as a group, the communication, the way everyone was on the same page comes from the quarterback."

Also prepping for a comeback this week is wide receiver/kick returner Josh Cribbs, who missed the Jacksonville game and failed to make an impact against the Panthers because of a foot injury. Cribbs is also listed as questionable.

"I'm looking forward to getting Josh back out there, not just with [returning] kicks, but at receiver," Mangini said. "He does present some problems teams have to prepare for."

SERIES HISTORY

Miami holds a slim 7-6 in its all-time regular-season series with Cleveland, but the Browns have won their last three games played against the Dolphins, all of which were held in Ohio. Cleveland has lost in each of its last three non-playoff stops in Miami, however, and hasn't emerged victorious in South Florida since 1970. The Browns were dealt a 10-7 defeat in their most recent trip to Miami, which took place in 2004, but pinned a 41-31 loss on the Dolphins during the 2007 season in the last showdown between the teams.

The Dolphins have prevailed in each of their two postseason encounters with the Browns, posting AFC Divisional Playoff wins at home in both 1972 and 1985.

Mangini sports a 5-1 lifetime record against Miami, including a 3-0 mark on the road, with all of those game taking place during his time with the New York Jets from 2006-08. Sparano has never previously faced the Browns, but is 1-1 in head-to-head matchups with Mangini as a head coach.

WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL

Statistically speaking, the numbers are fairly similar across the line of scrimmage for Cleveland. The Browns average 19.6 points per game while the Dolphins allow 20.5, and generate 310.3 total yards per week while Miami surrenders 305.3. Specifically, Cleveland goes for 193.5 yards per game through the air (28th overall) and 116.8 on the ground (12th overall). Miami, on the other hand, is fourth-best in the league against the pass with a 201.4 yards per game average and 14th in the league against the run with a weekly total of 103.9 yards per game allowed.

Assuming he gets the start, Delhomme tries to follow up on one career game against the Dolphins in which he had 285 passing yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a 97.9 passer rating. Running back Peyton Hillis rushed for 131 yards and three scores last week and added six catches for 63 yards, joining Marshall Faulk as the only player in NFL history to record at least 130 rushing yards, three rushing scores, six receptions and 60 receiving yards in a game. He also joins Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly as the only Browns to rush for at least 11 touchdowns in season. Elsewhere, wideout Brian Robiskie had a career-best seven catches last week and tight end Benjamin Watson has three career touchdown receptions vs. Miami, his second-most against any opponent.

For Miami, safety Chris Clemons had the first interception of his career in Week 12. Outside linebacker Cameron Wake aims for a third straight game with a sack and can add to his career-best 10 1/2 this season, while linebacker Karlos Dansby leads the team with 80 tackles.

WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL

Miami scores 18.6 points per week and generates 341.5 total yards per game, totals that are 28th and 16th in the league, respectively. The Browns' average of 20.8 points per week allowed is 13th-best in the NFL, though their yardage total of 356.7 per game is just 22nd. The Dolphins are middle of the road with both the pass and run, compiling 235.6 and 105.9 yards per game to place 14th and 19th, respectively. Cleveland is similarly pedestrian, allowing 237.2 yards a game via the pass and 119.5 on the ground for the 19th and 21st-best numbers.

Since returning to the fold in relief of Chad Pennington a few weeks back, Henne has completed 36-of-58 passes for 547 yards with three touchdowns, two interceptions and a 96.0 passer rating. He posted his third 300-yard passing game of the season last week, as well as the sixth of his career. The Dolphins had a season-high 186 rushing yards last week, with running back Ronnie Brown gaining 101 yards in his last game against the Browns. Backfield mate Ricky Williams had a season-long 45-yard touchdown run last week. Wideout Marshall has a touchdown catch in two of three career meetings with the Browns, while second receiver Davone Bess had the second 100-yard receiving game of his career last week (111 yards). He leads the AFC and ranks second in the NFL with 24 receptions on third down. Wideout Brian Hartline, an Ohio native, has 70-plus receiving yards in each of his past four games and rookie Marlon Moore scored his first touchdown last week on a 57-yard catch.

Among Browns notables on defense, linebacker Matt Roth was selected by the Dolphins in the second round of the 2005 NFL Draft and played in 65 games with Miami. Rookie cornerback Joe Haden, a Florida alum and No. 7 overall pick in last April's draft, is the first Browns player with interceptions in three consecutive games in his first NFL season since Bernie Parrish. Safety Abram Elam had a career-high pair of sacks last week.

FANTASY FOCUS

For the Browns, the starting quarterback doesn't mean as much to fantasy players as it does to fans of the team. The same cannot be said of Hillis, however, who's become a must-start in all leagues. Watson is starting to come around as a tight end, though kicker Phil Dawson and the Cleveland defense are risky at best. For Miami, Henne faces an iffy secondary and could exceed last week's big numbers if Marshall returns near 100 percent. Ronnie Brown and Williams will split carries and against a better Cleveland run defense, may not fare as well as with Oakland. Marshall and Bess are solid starters, while Hartline, kicker Dan Carpenter and the Dolphins defense range anywhere from lukewarm to comfortable options.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

As much as any team in football, the Dolphins are hard to read. Two weeks ago, they were completely inept in a shutout loss to Chicago. Last week, they score 33 points against the Raiders. The return of Henne is likely responsible for the uptick, and with Marshall back and the run game beginning to fire on all cylinders, Miami can suddenly appear dangerous again in the big AFC Wild Card picture. A win here furthers that momentum.

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