The Browns are 6-3 for the first time since being reborn in 1999. After Thursday night’s thrashing of the Bengals, it might be time to consider that Cleveland is for real. Plus, the Week 10 player in the spotlight and 10 things to watch for Sunday
Browns 24, Bengals 3, and it wasn’t that close. And even though this stunning Thursday-nighter in Cincinnati solved nothing in the AFC North, it felt like a seminal game for Mike Pettine’s Browns (good) and Marvin Lewis’s Bengals (very, very bad).
Stat of the Week: Since the Browns were reborn in 1999, they’ve never been 6-3 or better after nine games—until now.
"Dang!" said cornerback Joe Haden, straining to be heard above the din of the Cleveland locker room Thursday night. “That is very impressive. Very impressive.”
But there’s still this feeling about the Browns, despite what the eyes saw Thursday night in utterly dominating a flailing quarterback and a beat-up defense, that it’s all going to go poof at some point soon, the way the 2008 Browns went all fluky after the 2007 Browns went 10-6 and set up all sorts of false promises.
Haden lit into that premise.
"This is not a fluke," he said. “Absolutely not a fluke. It’s not a surprise. I know everybody out there is saying, ‘Surprising Browns. Surprising Browns. Surprising Browns.’ Go ahead and think that; we don’t care. We’re not shying away from anyone. This Cleveland Browns team is different. We grind and we work and we believe.’’
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On the other side, the Bengals got another slap in the face of Andy Dalton playing very small. Dalton, justifiably, is under pressure after three straight lousy playoff performances—all Bengals losses—in his first three seasons. So when the prime-time or big-game lights go on, we look to Dalton to see how he’ll perform, because the big games are the ones that matter for this team. Marvin Lewis is in his 12th year as coach, and Dalton is in his fourth year as starting quarterback. Though each has had some regular-season success, neither has won in the postseason. And it’s getting old.
This year, on their résumé, the Bengals have a Week 5 Sunday night 43-17 loss to New England, a Week 7 27-0 loss to Indianapolis, and a Week 10 Thursday night 24-3 loss to Cleveland at home. Three big games. Three putrid performances by the team and the quarterback, by a combined 94-20.
"It does confound me," said coach Marvin Lewis of his team’s inability to play well when the lights are brightest.
"I am concerned about the turnovers. Tonight he had a bad day," Lewis said of Dalton.
To put it mildly. Dalton has been a 45 percent passer with two scoring drives in the three games against New England, Indianapolis and Cleveland. Two touchdowns in three games. That’s beyond worrisome. No: Beyond worrisome was his 2.0 passer rating Thursday night. Dalton threw three interceptions, and two more were dropped.
Forget the misleading contract (six years, $96 million, but only $17 million in rock-solid guarantees), which the Bengals can escape with minimal financial pain, and focus on the play. Dalton had his weapons, A.J. Green and Mohammed Sanu, and a good young runner, Jeremy Hill, on the field Thursday night. He was wild high early, and just plain wild late. There is no way Cincinnati fans, and the Cincinnati front office and staff, can exit this game with the same blind confidence they’ve shown in Dalton after the three early playoff exits. This wasn’t quite a referendum game, but close to one … and Dalton lost the way McGovern lost to Nixon in 1972.
The upshot: Cincinnati has now left the division in the hands of 6-3 Cleveland and Pittsburgh—and the Steelers should be a half-game ahead after visiting the Jets on Sunday in New Jersey.
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Speaking of this weekend …
Let’s assume (always dangerous in this ridiculous league) a Pittsburgh win over the 1-8 Jets and a Baltimore victory over the 2-6 Titans this weekend. With those results, here would be the AFC North standings Sunday night:
Has there ever been a division in NFL history, after 10 weeks of a season, with every team two games over .500 or better?
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Cleveland needed this game, because those fluke questions were quite real. In the previous three weeks, the Browns faced then-0-6 Jacksonville, then-0-6 Oakland, and then-1-6 Tampa Bay. The Browns won two of three. Combined score: Jags/Raiders/Bucs 54, Browns 51. A juggernaut the Browns ain’t.
But look at whom the Browns are missing now. Pro Bowl center Alex Mack is gone for the year with a broken ankle. Ace tight end Jordan Cameron and starting wideout Andrew Hawkins are hurt, and all-world receiver Josh Gordon returns from substance-abuse suspension in two weeks. That’s four huge pieces, missing. And Thursday night, the Browns went on the road, in division, and won by three touchdowns.
It helped that Cleveland got a superb performance from a defense allowing 15.4 points per games over the last five games. The Browns batted away 10 passes, a huge number, against Dalton. And defensive tackle Desmond Bryant, the interior rusher from Harvard who got away from Reggie McKenzie in Oakland after the 2012 season, led a Cleveland defensive surge with sacks of Dalton on consecutive plays.
Cleveland will need this defense to play similarly over the final seven weeks. “I think what frustrated them tonight was all the different looks we gave them,’’ Haden said. “We threw their timing off. We saw them getting frustrated. We know in the past we have given teams life, let them back in the game. Not tonight. [Coach Mike Pettine] wanted us to stop the run and eliminate the deep balls, and I think for the most part we did that.’’
Now the scheduling gods like the Browns. Houston (4-5) and first-time starting quarterback Ryan Mallett come to Cleveland next week, and the Browns play at 2-6 Atlanta the week after that. Cleveland can’t afford to think any team, regardless of record, is a walkover, as the three games before Thursday night illustrated. But Clevelanders are dreaming of a playoff Christmas, and the schedule is hardly forbidding.
Brian Hoyer will have to make more plays than he has up to this point. He’s been a game manager, a very good one, in Cleveland’s recent 5-1 run. But I give him tremendous credit, winning with a cast diminished by the loss of his three top pass-catchers. Winning five of six against any NFL competition is a good accomplishment, and doing so with three of your top four targets being Travis Benjamin, Taylor Gabriel and Gary Barnidge Thursday night … that’s a credit to Hoyer.
The Browns in the playoffs. It’s still an outlier, with so many strong teams remaining in contention. But imagine this: Pittsburgh wins the division and earns the third or fourth seed in the AFC playoffs, and Cleveland pries a wild-card spot out of the AFC, and travels down the Ohio Turnpike the first weekend of January—to Pittsburgh. Sign me up for that one, boss.
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Now, about Dalton coming up very small in the very big games. Three playoff games is the beginning of a trend. New England on Sunday night and Cleveland on a Thursday night, with the division lead on the line, is a continuation of said trend. The blame falls on a decent man who may not be anything more than that as a quarterback.
“I deserve it," said Dalton. “I’ve got to play better."
Question is: Can he? The fate of a promising franchise depends on it.
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Seantrel Henderson, right tackle, Buffalo (number 66). Henderson, a rookie seventh-round pick from Miami (Fla.), grades out as Pro Football Focus’ 70th-rated tackle out of 74 qualifiers. The man who will oppose him Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston, is PFF’s top-rated 3-4 outside linebacker. Uh-oh, Buffalo.
Bose Sound Bite of the Week
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on the resurgent James Harrison:
"I'm not surprised by James. I think that the longer I'm in this business, I've come to expect unique results from unique people. And no question that James doesn't fit the norm. So I'm not surprised when he does things that are seemingly against the odds and so forth. James is a guy who was cut three times early in his career and went on to become a perennial Pro Bowler and Defensive Player of the Year. That's seemingly against the odds."
Regular Old Quote of the Week
"I think we all stunk."
—Denver coach John Fox, on the team’s performance at New England last Sunday.
Broncos at Oakland on Sunday. Denver, since Peyton Manning arrived in 2012, is 14-1 in AFC West games. It will be the upset of the year (and of the Manning Era in Denver) if the record is not 15-1 at 5 p.m. PT Sunday.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. News on the Ray Rice appeal. Someone’s going to have some stuff on the two-day hearing in New York—something along the lines of Rice and Roger Goodell have different memories of the same meeting. Shock!
2. Dallas to wow Wembley. In the first game they’ve played outside the United States that counts in the standings, the Cowboys (6-3) will need a productive Tony Romo to beat the Jags. I’m serious about that. If Brandon Weeden plays, I think Jacksonville wins.
3. The Bears, with a long-shot last gasp. Chicago (3-5) might not be able to afford a single loss the rest of the way to have a realistic shot at the playoffs. So, about that trip to Lambeau on Sunday night … The Pack’s pretty good after a bye under Mike McCarthy (7-1), and Aaron Rodgers makes fewer mistakes on a given Sunday than Jay Cutler. If I’m Marc Trestman, my offensive hopes are mainly in the hands of Matt Forte in this one.
4. A really interesting game in Buffalo. The 5-3 Chiefs at the 5-3 Bills. You’ll never guess the NFL’s leader in third-down completion percentage and in fourth-quarter passer rating. Try. It’s Kyle Orton. He’s given the Bills a fighting chance to play efficient offense, even with their two big running back injuries. Can NFL sack leader Justin Houston (1.5 per game, on pace to set a league record) get to Orton, particularly in crunch time? This is my favorite game of the weekend. This is the seventh straight year the two non-division foes have played—first four in KC, last three in Orchard Park.
5. The Steelers' game plan against the Jets’ Double-A secondary. Jets foes this year: 24 touchdown passes, one Jet interception. Jets foes’ passer rating: 112.1. Ben Roethlisberger shows up at the Meadowlands Sunday at 1. He might throw 55 passes. In the first half.
6. The plan for Adrian Peterson. After the state of Texas adjudicated his case this week (Peterson pled down to a misdemeanor assault charge), it’s hard to imagine the NFL keeping him on the sidelines for much longer, after he’s been there already for two months—albeit while being paid. The league respects local jurisprudence, and now that Peterson doesn’t have a felony on his record, it’s more likely he’ll have a chance to play football at some point before the end of this season. That is, if the Vikings let him come back. It’s in the league’s disciplinary hands now, and it’s going to be a sticky problem because of the uproar over personal conduct and domestic violence; the league doesn’t have a new policy for either worked out yet.
7. The Niners, at the edge of a cliff. It’s 4-4 San Francisco at 4-4 New Orleans, and there’s more pressure on the visitors. Because of the stench of the NFC South, New Orleans is the clear favorite to win the division, while San Francisco is losing much margin for error in a conference in which 11-5 might be necessary to win a wild-card spot.
8. A pulse for the Giants. New York (3-5) heads to Seattle for what appears to be its sixth loss, and the team is teetering on its fifth year out of the playoffs in the past six under Tom Coughlin. This is what team leader and safety Antrel Rolle said on WFAN this week: “On our sideline it’s very dead. Throughout a game it’s very dead. We need a pulse.” That’s not good, either for the immediate future or for Coughlin’s 2015 fate.
9. Jeremy Maclin, in prime time. Appreciate him, people, on Monday night against Carolina. He has the most catches without dropping a pass this year, 45, of anyone in football (via Pro Football Focus).
10. The Sanchize—in prime time again. Reacquaint yourselves, people, with Mark Sanchez on Monday night. It’s his first NFL start since his 13-TD, 18-pick 2012 season with the Jets. He played the last three quarters (starting hot, cooling off) of the Eagles’ win at Houston last Sunday, and Chip Kelly will give him everything in the game plan this week.