In three weeks, the Cleveland Browns went from being among the dregs of the NFL (again), to an up-and-coming team that is getting noticed on a national level.
Convincing wins over the defending Super Bowl champions, New Orleans, and the team with the best record, New England, will do that.
As a result, Browns have a big game Sunday. When was the last time that sentence could be used? Try, Dec. 23, 2007, as the Browns traveled to Cincinnati. That day, a win would have sealed a Browns’ playoff berth. Instead, four Derek Anderson interceptions later, the Browns lost 19-14.
On Sunday, the 6-2 New York Jets come to town. By now, the story lines regarding the Ryan brothers, Braylon Edwards returning to Cleveland and Eric Mangini going against his former team have been dealt with ad nauseum.
More importantly, this Jets team may be the most balanced team — on both sides — the Browns have faced this season. They can run the ball. They have weapons in the passing game. They can stop the run. They can defend the pass.
“We’ve played some very good defenses in the past weeks,” Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said. “Atlanta, New Orleans, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and New England. The Jets are another six-win team we’ll play and they give you a multitude of fronts you have to read and adjust to. (Colt McCoy) will have to do a good job with identifying those fronts. He’s prepared each week like a pro.”
McCoy gets his fourth straight start and each week the Browns have put more and more on the rookie’s plate. According to Daboll, McCoy is absorbing the film work off the field, but he also is able to translate that onto the field. Sometimes, Daboll said, quarterbacks can see what they have to do on film, but when the bullets are flying, the type spent studying is all for naught.
That is not the case with McCoy.
“Again, we all know he’s only played three games,” Daboll said. “He’s done a good job in those games and he’s going to have to continue to get better. But he can see stuff and this is going to be a big time challenge for him.
“He’s a perfectionist, he really is. He gets frustrated when the ball isn’t exactly where he wants it, he’ll get frustrated if the defense doesn’t give a certain look that he knows he prepared for to get it right. He went out there and he played a pretty good game, he did the things we asked him to do and he’s going to have to do that again.”
The Browns offense is only as good as its running game. The Jets are fourth in the league in allowing an average of 87.4 yards per game. Meanwhile, the Browns are 13th in the league averaging 117.8 yard rushing per game.
Peyton Hillis got 29 carries last week against New England and the Jets can expect a similar dose.
“We pride ourselves in running the football,” Daboll said. “We need to be able to stick with it. The Jets take a lot of pride in stopping the run. We expect a loaded box.”
As for the Jets offense, second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez is 136-for-254 passing (53.5 percent complete) for 1,692 yards with 10 touchdowns and five interceptions. He has not set the world on fire, but the Jets also pride themselves on running the football. New York is averaging 4.7 yards per carry led by a revived LaDainian Tomlinson, who has 599 yards and five touchdowns on 123 carries.
The Browns are 15th in the NFL allowing 105.9 yards rushing per game. In the last two games, New Orleans and New England combined for 126 rushing yards.
“I never thought either New Orleans or New England were committed to running the football,” Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said.
The Browns struggles against the pass are well documented. Braylon Edwards has always played well in big games and Sunday’s game is just that.
“He’s been a great receiver, he’s very talented just like all the Jets are,” Ryan said. “They’re extremely talented, but our defense wants to have an identity and they want to have an identity that Cleveland can relate to and that’s smart and tough and we’re going to prove it on Sunday.
“Whatever (Edwards) said about us, or Cleveland, or the coaches, he doesn’t like any of them except Eric (Mangini), that means me (expletive), so I’ll hit him on the sideline if he wants to come over. We’re looking forward to this, this is a great challenge. This is one of the very talented offenses in football and we can’t wait to hit them.”