In today's edition of "The Sunday Five," we take a look at what scenario needs to happen so that Cleveland Browns can eliminate Pittsburgh in Week 17 from playoff contention, reasons to be optimistic for today's game against the Denver Broncos, and more.
Now that the Cleveland Browns are eliminated from the playoffs, one of the things that fans still have their eyes on is the opportunity to knock the Pittsburgh Steelers out of the playoffs. The thing that needs to be known right now is this: while Cleveland can contribute to the Steelers missing the playoffs, they'll need some help for it to happen. There is a chance that Pittsburgh could win today, lose to the Browns, and still make the playoffs at 8-8.
Let's assume that the Steelers beat the Bengals this week (if Pittsburgh loses this week, they are eliminated, so there wouldn't be an opportunity to knock them out of the playoffs). Then, let's assume the Browns beat the Steelers in Week 17. That would make Pittsburgh 8-8. The Bengals would be 8-7 and facing the Ravens. If the Bengals beat the Ravens, they would make the playoffs over Pittsburgh at 9-7.
There is still a legitimate chance that both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh could miss the playoffs. First, we'll repeat the scenario above, but have Baltimore beat Cincinnati, which is certainly reasonable. That in itself would give Pittsburgh the playoff advantage over Cincinnati at 8-8. However, if the Dolphins are able to beat New England (this week) and Buffalo (next week), Miami would be in as long as the Jets don't also win their final two games (Pittsburgh has a tiebreaker over the Jets).
After being mostly pessimistic throughout the week, let's talk about some reasons to be optimistic for this week's game against the Broncos. First, although the Broncos are very good statistically against the run, if you maintain the commitment to the ground game, you can have some success there. The Chiefs (of all teams) did it in Week 12 and had success: Jamaal Charles had 23 carries for 107 yards (4.7 average). The Chiefs also gave two touches on the ground to Dexter McCluster. He went for 4 and 19 yards on those two carries. Could that mean we'll see some more of Joshua Cribbs from the Wildcat to keep the Broncos guessing? The word has been that Brad Smelley will finally get some work at fullback today. What is he is just a beast and helps spring some nice holes for his Alabama teammate, Trent Richardson?
Don't get me wrong -- Peyton Manning knows how to be mobile in his own way. At the same time, he's not going to be the most elusive guy in the world when the pressure does come. Prior to facing Kirk Cousins last week, the Browns' defensive line has been a force on opponents since the return of our defensive tackles. On the season, the Browns are also 3-0 against AFC West teams. While the Browns suffered losses at linebacker and in the secondary this week due to injuries, their defensive line remains relatively fresh. That means you can stop the run and generate some pressure. Who knows; there have been times in the league in which "new" defensive players make a splash out of no where. Could we have a stunning superstar game from someone like Usama Young, Eric Hagg, Tank Carder, or L.J. Fort?
Lastly, what I want to see from Brandon Weeden this week is for him to let loose. If it leads to interceptions, so be it. Granted, that doesn't mean he shouldn't be smart with the ball. For example, if Josh Gordon is being double covered deep down the field, don't just chuck it up for him. If Weeden thinks a receiver is open, have a quick release and throw it. Trust your reads. If a receiver has a one-on-one situation down the sideline, use that arm to let it rip. The big plays don't have to come against zone coverage; Weeden needs to trust his receivers in man, and not just on throws that are short of the first down marker for checkdowns. Hopefully this quote from Weeden earlier in the week is a sign of what is to come today: "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.
It's time to predict the inactives for the Browns against the Broncos. This week is going to be a little challenging due to the number of injuries the team has had and the three new players who were signed. Here are the seven inactives I came up with: RB Brandon Jackson, FB Owen Marecic, WR Mohamed Massaquoi, TE Jordan Cameron, OL Jarrod Shaw, DE Hall Davis, LB Adrian Moten, S Tashaun Gipson.
In this scenario, two new players would be active, including CB Prince Miller. My logic is that the Browns lost three defensive backs this week (Dimitri Patterson, T.J. Ward, and Gipson). They need an extra body active for special teams and depth reasons. At linebacker, the Browns plan to use the nickel package a lot against Denver, so Moten isn't needed since you opt for more defensive backs in that case. Davis would be active as an insurance policy since Frostee Rucker is a little banged up. WR Josh Cooper will be active with Massaquoi out, and FB Brad Smelley is up due to Cameron's head injury.