It's that time of year again. The weather is getting colder, the holiday rush is on, NFL teams are clinching playoff positions and, outside of Cleveland, the Browns (at 4-8) are a relative afterthought. Though they are on a two-game winning streak and have moved up in many Power Rankings, while the national spotlight focuses solely on the wildcard race and whoever happens to be playing quarterback for the New York Jets this week, the Browns are basically playing out the string.
Be that as it may, the Browns have a golden opportunity to win a third straight game this week at home against some familiar faces. The Kansas City Chiefs, led by head coach Romeo Crennel, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, quarterback Brady Quinn, and (back-up) running back Peyton Hillis, come to Cleveland tied for the worst record in the NFL. Compounding their on-field struggles is the reality of having to deal with the horrifying fallout from the suicide of Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and his brutal murder of Kasandra Perkins, the mother of his three-month old daughter.
It's impossible to quantify the damage that this tragic event has done to the Chiefs organization but one can only imagine the effects are beginning to take their toll inside the locker room. Surprisingly, the Chiefs were able to block out the tragedy and win their second game of the season only 24 hours later against the visiting Carolina Panthers last Sunday. Much credit goes to them for being able to band together in the face of extreme adversity and play what was arguably their best game of the season.
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Coming into this game, however, it's a mystery as to what we could expect from the maligned Chiefs. On one hand, it's probably a good thing for them to get away from Kansas City and the reminders of what happened there. Perhaps, last week has given them perspective and galvanized their purpose heading into this final month of the season. On the other hand, the emotional effects of what transpired may be beginning to take their toll on the players and coaches alike and a major let down may be in store. While they were able to come together and beat the Panthers, they may not be emotionally collected enough to build off that momentum against the Browns. We'll find out Sunday.
Motivating the Browns to play hard shouldn't be a problem. The team has won their last two games and is finally showing the ability to beat the teams they're "supposed" to beat. Pat Shurmur's growth as a head coach is becoming as evident as the growth of his young players. They are learning how to win and to close out games together. The execution is improving and the game is beginning to slow down for the rookies starting at the key skill positions like quarterback Brandon Weeden, running back Trent Richardson, and wide receiver Josh Gordon. I said after the Oakland game last Sunday that the Browns are taking the necessary steps toward legitimacy. The next step in the process has to be forward and that includes beating the 2-10 Chiefs at home.
While much attention is being focused this week on the Browns' former players and coaches returning for a shot to hand it to the team who cast them off, the Browns' players should be focused on shutting down one of the best running backs in the game in Jamaal Charles. Charles brings a quickness and elusiveness that the Browns haven't seen from any of the running backs they've been able to beat this season. On Thursday at his weekly press conference, Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron compared Charles (222 rushes for 1,055 yards, 3 TDs) to the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice. While Charles isn't quite as much of a factor in the passing game that Rice can be, he is just as much of a threat to get the ball and take it the distance on any given carry due to his vision and speed through the holes.
And he seems to get better as the game goes on. According to ESPN's Fantasy Spin: "Once Romeo Crennel allowed Charles to run the ball 20-plus times a game, the results followed. Charles now has had five games in which he has rushed for 100-plus yards, including three of his past four, and here's the common bond: 23 or more carries in each." Needless to say, the Browns run defense will have their work cut out for them in stopping the Chiefs on the ground. And while Browns fans might be left with the memories of Peyton Hillis' dismal 2011 season lingering in their minds, let's not forget that he can be a force in short yardage situations and lay the wood when he wants to. Something tells me he may be a little extra motivated this week.
Working in the Browns favor, however, is the fact that the run defense has improved considerably since defensive linemen Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin have returned to the lineup. According to Tim Graham of The Buffalo News, since Week 9, the Browns are ranked first in the league with 65.7 rushing yards allowed per game (3 games, 197 yards). During that same span, the Browns are ranked fourth in yards per carry at 3.4 (three games, 58 attempts, 197 yards). It will be incumbent on them to get off the field on third down and not let Charles and Hillis eat up chunks on the ground. The Browns have to force Brady Quinn to beat them through the air by shutting down the run game and getting out to an early lead.
According to Evan Silva, Senior Editor of Rotoworld.com and senior writer for NBC Sports, Brady Quinn's combined career stats the week after he passes for over 200 yards, as he did against the Panthers, is a 44.2% completion percentage with 4.47 yards per completion, 0 touchdowns and one interception. Needless to say, there is a reason he is on his third team in four years and was the backup to Matt Cassel to begin the 2012 season. Not helping matters for Quinn is the fact that the Browns secondary is completely healthy with cornerback Dimitri Patterson and safety Usama Young returning to practice this week. If the Browns can shut down the run and force Quinn to pass, it could be another ugly day on the lakefront for the Ohio native and former Browns QB.
Obviously, things have to go right for the Browns on the other side of the ball as well. Brandon Weeden had his best game, statistically, as a pro quarterback last week in Oakland. He needs to continue to get comfortable and build on his recent success. Not throwing any early interceptions would be a big step. Though he's proven to have the resilience to bounce back from early miscues, it would be nice to see him come out and have a complete game without making some of the mental errors he's made early in games the past few weeks. Offensive coordinator Brad Childress noted to the assembled media in Berea on Thursday that Weeden is "improving using terminology, calling plays in the huddle and understanding them." This suggests that Weeden is completing a normal learning curve which all rookies have a tendency to go through in their first season. The fact that Weeden is six years older than most rookies is immaterial. He's still a rookie and he's getting better.
With many of the Chiefs defensive players, including cornerback Brandon Flowers and linebacker Derrick Johnson, missing or limited in practice this week, the opportunities should be there for Weeden and company. Also, the emergence of improving wide receivers Josh Gordon, Greg Little and tight end Benjamin Watson making plays in the passing game, and a steady dose of running backs Trent Richardson and Montario Hardesty on the ground, should help the Browns continue their winning streak into the month of December. The last thing in the world this team and coaching staff can afford is to take a step backward by dropping a home game to the lowly Chiefs. While the rest of the NFL landscape is worrying about quarterback carousels and playoff scenarios, maybe Cleveland can start to feel good about its football team once again.