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NFL Preview - Cleveland (0-1) at Denver (1-0)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Fans of the Denver Broncos will certainly be cheering for their own team on Sunday, when the Cleveland Browns pay a visit to the Mile High City for Denver's home opener. That said, you can bet some members of the Broncos will be on a short leash with the home faithful.
Broncos fans have seen their loyalties tested at almost every turn since the 2008 season careened to a halt with three straight losses that put the team at 8-8 and out of the playoff money. Many Denver supporters applauded the firing of Mike Shanahan after 14 seasons and not enough (recent) postseason wins, but the hiring of then-32-year-old head coach Josh McDaniels had some backers of the team scratching their collective heads.
McDaniels and Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler had a well-publicized spat that resulted in the signal-caller being shipped to Chicago in exchange for a couple of first-round draft picks and quarterback Kyle Orton, who burst onto the scene in Denver by throwing three interceptions in his first three series of the preseason.
Orton, who was roundly booed during that performance, figures to hear some similar negative opinions if he struggles on Sunday against the Browns, and McDaniels would seem to be a natural target for criticism if things go poorly as well.
But Broncos fans might save their most severe vitriol for wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who will be in a home uniform for the first time since incurring a team suspension for insubordination during the preseason. Marshall, who reportedly asked for a trade when it became clear the team would not renegotiate his contract in the spring, subsequently left the team's mandatory mini-camp without taking the field, failed to learn the new playbook, and purposely batted away thrown balls during practice to earn himself a brief separation from the team.
After returning in time for last week's opener against the Bengals, Marshall caught four passes for 27 yards in a 12-7 win over Cincinnati, a performance overshadowed by fellow wideout Brandon Stokley's 87-yard touchdown catch off a batted ball that gave the Broncos the victory in the closing seconds.
The good news for Broncos fans wishing to put all of the negative events of the past in the rear view mirror is that Denver will have a very good chance of moving to 2-0 on Sunday.
The Browns, widely expected to be among the worst teams in the league in 2009, did little to dispel that notion in last week's 34-20 home loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Cleveland allowed 180 yards and three touchdowns to Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, while starting quarterback Brady Quinn was sacked five times in the debut for new Browns head coach Eric Mangini.
Denver leads the all-time regular season series with Cleveland, 17-5, and has won the last eight meetings dating back to 1991. The Broncos were 34-30 road winners when the teams last met, in Cleveland last season. The Browns' most recent win in the series came in 1990, a 30-29 triumph at Mile High Stadium. Cleveland is 0-3 in Denver since that contest, including a 23-20 overtime loss in their most recent trip there, in 2003.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have an extensive history against one another in the postseason. Denver defeated Cleveland to win the AFC Championship in 1986, 1987, and 1989. The Broncos' 23-20 overtime victory in the 1986 game at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium was best known for "The Drive" executed by Denver quarterback John Elway. The Browns were done in in the 1987 game at Mile High by a critical goal-line miscue by Cleveland running back Earnest Byner, also known as "The Fumble."
Mangini is 0-1 in his career against the Broncos, with that loss coming for his Jets at home last season. The Broncos' McDaniels will be meeting both Mangini and the Browns for the first time as a head coach. Mangini and McDaniels worked on the same staff with the New England Patriots from 2001 through 2005.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
The first start of Brady Quinn's 2009 season was a bit of a mixed bag, with Quinn making some nice plays but also failing to lead the offense down the field consistently. The former first-rounder completed 21-of-35 passes for 205 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but was also sacked five times and completed just eight passes for 68 yards to wide receivers. Among the greatest disappointments for the Browns was the work of wideout Braylon Edwards, who had one catch for 12 yards to show for his day. Tight end Robert Royal offered a silver lining, hauling in four balls for a game-high 60 yards and scoring Cleveland's lone offensive touchdown in his first meaningful outing with the club. Wideout Mike Furrey also caught four passes in his formal debut with the team. The Cleveland running game was a major question mark entering the season, and nothing that happened against the Vikings dispelled those doubts. Browns backs Jamal Lewis (neck), Jerome Harrison (knee) and James Davis (shoulder) are all listed on this week's injury report, though Lewis, who had 104 total yards (57 rushing, 47 receiving) on 14 total touches last week (11 rushing, three receiving) is considered probable.
One element of the Broncos' Week 1 victory that has to have fans breathing a sigh of relief is the work of a defense that kept the Bengals off the scoreboard for the game's first 59-plus minutes. Newcomers Brian Dawkins (11 tackles) and Renaldo Hill (7 tackles) were difference-makers in a secondary still led by cornerback Champ Bailey (7 tackles), and that group was assisted by a pass rush that notched three sacks, including one each for first-year Broncos Andra Davis (9 tackles) and Darrell Reid. The linebacker Davis will be facing a Browns team for which he played for seven seasons (2002-2008). Davis and fellow inside linebacker D.J. Williams (10 tackles) combined for 19 stops in holding the Bengals to 86 rushing yards on the day, while Ronald Fields (2 tackles) and Ryan McBean (2 tackles) were among those most active on the team's three-man front.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Though Orton was able to log his first win as the Broncos starter last week, moving to an impressive 22-12 in his NFL career in the process, few would confuse his work with a dominant performance. Taking away the 87-yard gain on a fluke play in the final moments, Orton was a pedestrian 16-of-27 for 156 yards without a touchdown drive or turnover and three sacks absorbed, leading an attack that managed just nine first downs prior to the big play to Stokley. The signal-caller will be trying to continue to build chemistry with his receiving corps - Marshall, Stokley, Jabar Gaffney (3 receptions, 25 yards), and Eddie Royal (2 receptions, 18 yards) - along with tight ends Daniel Graham (3 receptions, 40 yards) and Tony Scheffler (1 reception, 29 yards). The running game was nothing to write home about last week either, as Correll Buckhalter (8 rushes, 46 yards), Knowshon Moreno (8 rushes, 19 yards) and LaMont Jordan (2 rushes, 5 yards) failed to gain consistent traction.
The Browns had little idea how to stop Peterson and the Vikings running game last week, allowing an NFL-worst 225 yards on the ground in Week 1. To complicate matters, the team's best defensive player and run-stopper, tackle Shaun Rogers (5 tackles, 1 sack), is questionable for Sunday with a foot problem. If he can't go, inside linebackers D'Qwell Jackson (9 tackles) and Eric Barton (8 tackles) could have significantly more to do. A bright spot for Cleveland last week was the work of a pass rush that generated four sacks, including one for resurgent outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (3 tackles). On the back end, safety Abram Elam logged eight tackles and a sack in his formal Browns debut, while corners Brandon McDonald (4 tackles) and Eric Wright (3 tackles) were able to limit Vikings wideouts Bernard Berrian and Sidney Rice to a combined two catches on the day.
This is not a game most fantasy enthusiasts will pay much attention to, though there a couple of players worth noting. One is Moreno, who if healthy will have a chance to do some damage against a Browns defense that had no clue how to stop Adrian Peterson a week ago. Elsewhere on the Broncos, Matt Prater is worth considering because of his big leg, and the Denver defense played well in Cincinnati, albeit against a shaky Bengals offense.
On the Cleveland side, the tight end Royal looks like he's going to be a significant part of the offense, and kicker Phil Dawson should get a few more chances this week. Otherwise, steer clear of the Browns.
There couldn't have been any easier way for McDaniels to begin his tenure with the Broncos than with two games against the worst the AFC has to offer. Denver was lucky to win in Cincinnati, but back at home, there will be every expectation that the Broncos will have the ability to knock out the Browns somewhat easily. Don't be so sure about that. Denver simply lacks the firepower to run anyone off the field, and you can look for Cleveland to hang around in this game until the fourth quarter. A lack of playmakers will ultimately doom the Browns, but they'll have their chances to make it interesting.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 14, Browns 10
09/17 15:17:59 ET
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