8:20 PM EST FOX – Line: Browns -1, Over/Under: 40.5
A pair of teams that have cooled off considerably after hot starts look to get back on track in Northern Ohio, as the struggling Denver Broncos attempt to break their recent losing skid at the Cleveland Browns, who are simply trying to survive an injury crisis on a short week. Though it may not appear that way from the outside looking in, 2021 is a very significant season for the Broncos (3-3, T-3rd in AFC West) for a variety of reasons, none more so than the precarious status of (Head Coach) Vic Fangio, who is in the midst of his third year with the franchise. Coming into the campaign, Denver was a mediocre 12-20 under his watch, often characterized for their slow starts; they began 2019 with four consecutive defeats, followed by an 0-3 start in 2020, making it imperative that the 63-year old avoid a similar beginning to 2021, lest he find himself on the proverbial hot seat. Keep in mind that this is a team that has suffered four consecutive losing seasons, which marks their longest run of futility since the early 1970s. And it’s with that said that he and his charges managed to flip the script this season, winning their first three games for the first time since 2016 only to turn right around and drop each of their last three contests. So what gives in Mile High, you ask? Well, it’s continued to be a case of the status quo remaining in place for a team that despite fielding an above-average Defense year in and year out, has annually struggled to find a gamechanger at the most important position in the sport: Quarterback. Ever since (newly-minted Hall of Famer) Peyton Manning retired following Super Bowl L, the Broncos have struggled mightily to find a capable replacement with a long list of signal-callers that could rival that of any other franchise in the National Football League of late; simply put, (VP of Football Ops) John Elway has turned over every stone over the last five years in his effort to find a solution under Center, dipping into Free Agency (Brock Osweiler, Case Keenum, and Joe Flacco) as well as the Draft (Paxton Lynch and Drew Lock) for a Quarterback, and has been left disappointed at every turn. That was a major reason why Elway decided to relinquish his role as General Manager and move into an elevated position within the organization, in turn tabbing George Paton to be his replacement. Paton then immediately took a page out of his predecessor’s playbook and brought in yet another veteran journeyman, signing Teddy Bridgewater (70.2%, 1,514 YDS, 6.57 NY/A, 10 TD, 4 INT, 52.5 QBR) to compete with the aforementioned Lock (557.1%, 113 YDS, 4.08 NY/A, 0 TD, 1 INT, 6.4 QBR). Formerly a scout with the Minnesota Vikings, Paton was a member of the front office that drafted Bridgewater 32nd Overall back in 2014, and clearly felt confident in the 29-year old’s ability to unlock the potential of an Offense that has added a good deal of talent at the skill positions over the past few years. However, at this point of his career, Bridgewater is very much who he is, an oft-traveled veteran who now find himself on his fourth different team in five years (we’re not going to mention his brief stint with the New York Jets back in 2018). A game manager in every sense of the term, he oftentimes leaves huge plays downfield on the table in favor of shorter, safer throws, which is a major reason why the Carolina Panthers opted to replace him after a 4-11 stint in 2020. So in a division in which you’re competing against the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and Derek Carr, what in the world made Denver think that this guy would elevate the Offense to a level where they could keep pace with any of those other units? Sure, he’s in all likelihood a better option than any of those Quarterbacks that have preceded him (and certainly better than Lock), but at the end of the day the attack has been mediocre at best; the Broncos have averaged just 21.0 points per game (22nd Overall) on 388.7 total yards (13th Overall), including a middling 271.2 yards through the air (13th Overall) and another 117.5 yards on the ground (14th Overall), while failing to find much success pushing the football downfield on 6.3 net yards per attempt (20th Overall), and ranking dead-last on third down (29.9%) along with fifth-worst in the red zone (45.5%). Granted, they’ve been without a pair of young Wideouts in the form of Jerry Jeudy (6 REC, 72 YDS, 12.0 Y/R, 0 TD) and KJ Hamler (5 REC, 74 YDS, 14.8 Y/R, 0 TD), who are both on Injured Reserve for the foreseeable future, but it’s not an understatement to say that everyone in Denver expected more than what they’ve received thus far, with last weekend’s 34-24 loss to the reeling Las Vegas Raiders serving as the tipping point; the hosts produced 421 total yards and held possession for a commanding 34:33 only to throw it all away thanks to four turnovers, while much of Bridgewater’s 334 passing yards and three touchdowns came in garbage time after the Broncos fell behind 31-10. Furthermore, he was sacked on five occasions for a loss of twenty-five yards, and has thus far been limited in practice throughout the short week with a sore foot. Now they need to get ready for a quick turnaround in Cleveland, who is going through their own injury woes (more on that shortly). Tonight’s meeting marks their first with the Browns since 2019, a 24-19 victory in Mile High. This is a franchise that has been no stranger to the bright lights of primetime over the past decade, appearing forty-one times since 2011 and amassing a 22-19 record in the process. With that said, a sizable portion of that success (15-5) came during the aforementioned Manning’s tenure with the team, as they’ve gone just 7-14 in these particular contests since 2016. However, Thursday night has treated them right of late, winning three of their last four outings, including their most recent effort, a 37-28 victory over the Jets last October.
Meanwhile, expectations have never been higher for the Browns (3-3, T-3rd in AFC North) than coming into 2021, but they too have faltered after an impressive start, losing back-to-back outings in disappointing fashion. Just two weeks ago this was a 3-1 team who looked every bit like the postseason threat that they were predicted to be, and now they find themselves trending towards the bottom of arguably the most competitive division in the NFL, with a lengthy list of injuries threatening to prolong their fall. So let’s take a look at their Injury Report, shall we? Apart from nine players already landing on Injured Reserve, Cleveland has twenty other names listed as of this post, and appears to be without (Tailbacks) Nick Chubb (90 CAR, 523 YDS, 5.8 Y/A, 4 TD) and Kareem Hunt (69 CAR, 361 YDS, 5.2 Y/A, 5 TD) for the foreseeable future, with both players dealing with respective calf injuries, while the Offensive Line could be without (Tackles) Jedrick Wills (ankle) and Jack Conklin (knee) long with (Center) J.C. Tretter haven’t practiced this week, along with (Quarterback) Baker Mayfield (67.1%, 1,474 YDS, 7.13 NY/A, 6 TD 3 INT, 41.6 QBR) who after playing with a partial tear in his left labrum for the past two games will miss tonight’s affair altogether. Needless to say, that’s A LOT for (Head Coach) Kevin Stefanski and his staff to be dealing with, particularly on Offense where so many prominent performers have been laid low. So much of this group’s success came with Stefanski simplifying their approach and running the football as the Browns finished fourth in rushing attempts, third in yards, and fifth in yards per carry last season en route to finishing 11-5 and advancing to the Playoffs for the first time since 2002, and have ranked first overall in all three of those categories through the first six games. Simply put, running the football equates to success for this team, and it’s difficult seeing that continue without their top two leading rushers, both Offensive Tackles, and Center, not to mention the situation with Mayfield. After falling well below expectations in 2019, the former No. One Overall Pick benefitted tremendously by Stefanski’s arrival, cutting down on his turnovers and getting rid of the football much quicker. In 2019 he threw a league-worst twenty-one interceptions and was sacked forty times (7.0%), though managed to trim those figures significantly to eight and twenty-six (5.1%) last year. However, the train of thought around the NFL is that without the ground game to lean on and the benefit of play-action that it provides, the 26-year old will fall back into his old habits, and the numbers suggest that to a degree; with his protection in flux, Mayfield has already been sacked eighteen times thus far, parlaying to major leap of 9.4%, when coupled with that aforementioned shoulder injury (which to be clear, is NOT his throwing shoulder) has caused his QBR to drop precipitously from a career-high 72.2 a year ago to 41.6. Reports out of Browns camp indicate that he will undergo surgery at the end of the season, though at this point the feeling is that the situation is very fluid. With the former Heisman being ruled out of action, (veteran journeyman) Case Keenum (33.3%, 6 YDS, 2.00 NY/A, 0 TD, 0 INT, 7.5 QBR) will get the nod to face his former employers. Of course, Keenum started sixteen games for Denver back in 2018, leading them to a disappointing 6-10 finish with eighteen touchdowns and fifteen interceptions. With that said, the 33-year old enjoyed his finest campaign under Stefanski’s watch (as his Quarterbacks Coach) in Minnesota back in 2017, leading the Vikings all the way to the NFC Championship Game after the aforementioned Bridgewater suffered a serious knee injury in training camp. However, as concerning as the Offense appears to be, the Defense has been getting absolutely eviscerated of late; (Defensive Coordinator) Joe Woods’s charges have relinquished EIGHTY-FOUR points and 845 yards over the last two weeks in losses to the Los Angeles Chargers (42-47) and Arizona Cardinals (14-37). After chewing up some poor Offenses in the form of the Houston Texans, Chicago Bears, and aforementioned Vikings, this is a unit that has been routinely gashed by the better attacks in the NFL and the numbers absolutely support that notion; in their three losses they’ve allowed an average of 39.0 points on 414.0 total yards, including 304.3 yards against the pass and another 109.7 versus the run, forcing just three turnovers along the way. Two weeks ago they became the first team in NFL history to lose a game in which they posted over forty points and 500 yards of offense, and last week they quickly fell behind 20-0 to an undefeated Cardinals team that was without their Head Coach (and primary playcaller) and a number of other members of the staff due to COVID-19. This one was as one-sided as they come, folks, as Arizona won just about every major category including total yards (352-290), first downs (24-16), passing yards (229-240), rushing yards (144-73), third down (53.3%-30.0%), turnovers (0-3), and time of possession (34:39). Indeed, last Sunday’s defeat was a reminder as to what can happen when the Offense (I.E. the ground game) isn’t carrying the load; the hosts ran for a season-low seventy-three yards on nineteen attempts, which left Mayfield under heavy pressure in suffering five sacks for a loss of twenty-three yards with an interception and a pair of lost fumbles. In this matchup against (former Oklahoma teammate) Kyler Murray, who coincidentally was drafted first overall a year after his predecessor at Norman, the latter clearly won the day, completing 20-of-30 passes for 229 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. In fact, this particularly matchup of opposing Quarterbacks was the only the second of it’s kind since Jim Plunkett and the aforementioned Elway faced off after being drafted first overall following Heisman-winning collegiate careers at Stanford. And speaking of Elway, the Hall of Famer isn’t well-received in Cleveland, which was the sight of some of his greatest postseason performances, including the drive in the 1986 AFC Championship Game. The Browns have lost three of their last four meetings with the Broncos dating back to 2012, and will be looking for a little love on primetime; given their lengthy struggles over the past two decades, this is a franchise that hasn’t appeared under the bright lights frequently, with just seventeen primetime games to their name since 2011 (8-9), though they are 5-3 on Thursday nights, winning each of their last three outings including a 35-30 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last season.