Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
This week, the Cleveland Browns face their toughest match of the season when they take on the Denver Broncos. As I stated in my scouting report on Denver, their team excels in all three facets of the game -- offensive, defense, and special teams. Their coaching is pretty good too. Does Cleveland stand any chance at pulling off an upset?
In my opinion, there is still no one better in this league than Peyton Manning at the quarterback position. He hasn't shown negative effects from missing a year of football; in fact, this is one of the better seasons that Manning is having. It helps that he has a better defense than he ever had in Indianapolis. Manning has struggled against the Browns for some reason in five career games. We can't bank on that happening for a sixth time, right?
This is Brandon Weeden's chance to earn some redemption in the eyes of the fans who have started to waver with their support of him, and for a potentially new head coach and general manager. It sounds like Weeden wants to let loose over these final two games: "At this point I've just got to let it fly," Weeden said. "From here on out, just let it rip and be aggressive, continue to take shots and see where it ends up." We'll see.
Do touchdowns make up for the relatively low production that Trent Richardson has had on the ground over the past couple of games? The truth is that it's not all on Richardson. A lot of his success depends on the offensive line winning at the line of scrimmage for the passing game working well. Denver ranks very well against the run, but Cleveland did have some success against San Diego in that area. Brad Smelley might get some work at fullback too.
Knowshon Moreno has done a very admirable job in the starting lineup since Willis McGahee's injury. Ronnie Hillman has done pretty well in the few carries he has received. Both backs seem to do well in the system, but I still prefer Richardson's ability to make an impact in this game over them.
I'm not trying to take anything away from Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, but if they didn't have Peyton Manning as their quarterback, they wouldn't be as productive as they are. What makes the Broncos' receiving unit effective is that everyone has the chemistry with Manning now, and that includes the starters, Brandon Stokley, Jacob Tamme, and Joel Dressen.
The Browns will be without Mohamed Massaquoi, so Josh Cooper is supposed to be active and should get some reps. Josh Gordon and Greg Little continue to look good, but they don't match up to Denver yet. The Browns will be without tight end Jordan Cameron, so Alex Smith will fill in for him.
The Browns' offensive line was a disappointment last week for the first time in awhile when it comes to pass protection, and the run blocking has remained suspect. It doesn't help that Denver features two prolific edge rushers. Peyton Manning is on track to take more sacks than he did in many years with the Colts, but the protection is still solid for him up front, and Denver does a good job blocking for the running game.
There has to be some marginal concern with the Browns' depth at defensive end since Frostee Rucker is banged up, although he should still be able to play. The Browns' defensive line wasn't the problem last week against the Redskins; they still have the type of depth to stay fresh in stopping the run. You have to wonder if Manning will go hurry-up to prevent the usual substitutions, though.
Denver's front four have been good at stopping the run and bringing pressure. The last time Elvis Dumervil faced the Browns, he registered four sacks in one half. On the other side, rookie defensive end Derek Wolfe has shown some flashes.
Von Miller, Keith Brooking, and Wesley Woodyard is one hell of a combination at linebacker. Everyone knows about Miller and Brooking, but Woodyard has really stepped up as a key defensive contributor for the Broncos and has been a big playmaker.
The Browns are without James-Michael Johnson this week, so either L.J. Fort or Tank Carder will get the start in his place. Even at full strength, the Browns wouldn't have the edge here. With so many starters out this week, D'Qwell Jackson is the type of player who needs to step up with a Pro Bowl type of game.
The Broncos have the perfect combination of veteran and youth in their secondary. Champ Bailey remains one of the best cornerbacks in the league, but second-year man Chris Harris on the opposite side of the field has played exceptionally well too. That's high praise for a guy who went undrafted. The Broncos' third corner, Tony Carter, has also been solid in coverage. Former Brown Mike Adams is at safety.
Meanwhile, the Browns will see drastic changes in their secondary this week. Dimitri Patterson was waived, and safeties T.J. Ward and Tashaun Gipson are out. We'll have to hope Usama Young, Eric Hagg, and Buster Skrine deliver against the best quarterback in the league. That's a tall order to ask.
Trindon Holliday has been getting reps at kick and punt return, and he has a touchdown in both areas this year. Defensively, the Broncos' coverage units are ranked 3rd against punts and 5th against kickoffs. One question mark you could look at is kicker Matt Prater, who is 23-of-29 on the season, including just 6-of-11 from beyond 40 yards. As far as punters go, Britton Colquitt has been one of the best in the league; he is 4th in the NFL in net yardage at 42 yards per punt.
The Browns reportedly tried out a punter either this week or last week, but Reggie Hodges is still on the roster. He remains the Browns' biggest weakness on special teams. Other than him, though, Phil Dawson, Joshua Cribbs, and the coverage units have been stout as of late.
While I'm excited about the prospect of the Browns shocking the world, the injuries on defense, particularly at safety, are a major concern for me this week. I'm expecting Manning to finally snap his streak of mediocre games against Cleveland's defense, but the Browns will still make the final score appear respectable.
FINAL PREDICTION: Denver Broncos 27, Cleveland Browns 17