NFL Preview - Cleveland (3-6) at Jacksonville (5-4)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - If given the choice between the lakefront of Ohio and the oceanfront of Florida, most would choose south.
Most, that is, outside of the home teams in the occasionally reoccurring NFL series between the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars, who'll renew acquaintances for the 13th time this Sunday at the stadium now known as EverBank Field in Jacksonville.
Though the Jaguars have owned the matchup to the tune of eight wins in 12 games since 1995, the road team has gradually taken control of the proceedings regardless of the locale, with the visitor winning five of the last six matchups. The Browns, in fact, have won three straight in Jacksonville, including a 23-17 triumph in October of 2008 in which kicker Phil Dawson hit two fourth-quarter field goals.
Cleveland was actually the lone home winner in the last six meetings as well, taking an encounter alongside Lake Erie this past January by the same 23-17 margin that was led by 127 rushing yards and a touchdown from since-traded running back Jerome Harrison.
The Browns were slightly less fortunate on home turf last week, rallying in the final minute of regulation to force overtime before falling, 26-20, to the New York Jets. The loss ended a two-game skein in which Cleveland stunningly toppled both the defending Super Bowl champions (winning at New Orleans, 30-17) and the most recent "team of the decade" (downing visiting New England, 34-14).
This came after a 1-4 start to the season that had seen the Browns get to 20 points just once.
The improved play has coincided with the arrival of rookie quarterback Colt McCoy, who stepped in as a starter in Week 6 after veterans Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace were slowed with ankle injuries. He's done little to dissuade continued use ever since, completing 64-of-99 passes for 734 yards and a pair of touchdowns, as well as a superb 99.8 passer rating in the fourth quarter.
"We can play with anybody and fight with anybody. We fight and deal with adversity well," said Browns head coach Eric Mangini, who when referring to McCoy, added "He's making the discussion harder and harder each week."
Meanwhile, McCoy's quarterback counterpart at Jacksonville -- veteran David Garrard -- has been suddenly resurgent.
The ninth-year man from East Carolina, often lumped in with the lower-tier passers in the league and occasionally the focus of quarterback controversy with the Jaguars, has completed 41-of-52 passes (78.8 percent) for 602 yards, six scores and a 153.4 rating in his last two starts.
Garrard also leads the NFL with a 137.2 fourth-quarter rating this season, a number buoyed by last week's last-play miracle in which a heave to the end zone was batted by a Houston defender and directly into the hands of Mike Thomas to complete a 50-yard touchdown play that gave Jacksonville a 31-24 victory.
"Anything's possible. We have to believe that we can," Garrard said. "If we don't believe it, then it won't happen for us. This team is confident. [Head coach] Jack [Del Rio] has given us a lot of confidence. He's continuing to put together great game plans week in and week out. It's really up to us to go execute.
"If we do that, stay the course and play it one game at a time, we can make anything happen."
As previously stated, Jacksonville has an 8-4 advantage in its all-time series with Cleveland, but the Browns have taken the past two matchups between the teams and defeated the Jaguars by 23-17 count in Ohio during the 2009 regular- season finale. That victory snapped a five-game winning streak by the visitor in this set, with the Browns having emerged triumphant in each of their last three trips to Jacksonville (2001, 2002, 2008).
Del Rio is 1-2 in his career against the Browns. Mangini owns a 1-1 record versus both Del Rio and the Jaguars, with that loss coming via a 41-0 verdict at EverBank Field while then the head coach of the New York Jets in 2006.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
It took two gimpy veteran ankles to give him the chance, but rookie quarterback McCoy has proven his mettle over four starts -- winning twice and posting a passer rating of 80.0 or better in three. The rating jumps to the aforementioned 99.8 in the fourth quarter, when Cleveland has sealed two wins and rallied to force overtime in McCoy's last three outings. Running back and Mike Alstott-clone Peyton Hillis has been among the league's biggest surprises and is two touchdowns shy of becoming the fifth player in franchise history to reach 10 in a season, joining Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly, Kevin Mack and Mike Pruitt. He also leads all AFC runners with 17 first-down receptions and is fourth in the conference with a 109.1-yard average from scrimmage each week. Among the more traditional targets, wideout Mohamed Massaquoi caught his second touchdown pass of the season last week against the Jets, and tight end Benjamin Watson is averaging 16.6 yards per catch in his last three games, having compiled seven receptions for 116 yards.
As a unit, the Jaguars have struggled to reach mediocre in terms of numbers. Their 387.2 yards allowed per week places them 28th in a 32-team league, leading only New England, Arizona, Houston and Washington. Foes have gashed them for a league-worst 6.4 yards per play as well as 27.8 points per game. Opposing quarterbacks have been particularly prolific against Jacksonville, completing 67.8 percent of their passes for an average of 272.3 yards per week -- 29th-best in the league. Against the run, the Jaguars are permitting a slightly-less obscene 114.9 yards per week on a 4.3-yard per carry average. Individually, defensive back Derek Cox intercepted a pass in his lone career game against the Browns and leads the team with two picks for the season. Linebacker Daryl Smith leads the Jags with 50 tackles and tackle Terrance Knighton becomes the club's active leader with 3 1/2 sacks now that rush specialist Aaron Kampman (four sacks) is out for the season with a knee injury.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Though he's often not pretty, Garrard has raised his play against the Browns, having passed for 601 yards and six touchdowns with two interceptions for an 86.3 rating in his last three games against Cleveland. Veteran workhorse Maurice Jones-Drew aims for a third consecutive game with at least 100 rushing yards and went for a season-best two scores last week. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry in his last game against the Browns. Wideout Thomas was on the receiving end of Garrard's Hail Mary prayer last week, adding to a career-best 149 receiving yards. He's caught touchdown passes in two straight, while fellow wideout Mike Sims-Walker has a score in two of the last three games. Tight end Marcedes Lewis already has a franchise-record seven scoring catches this season, while fellow tight end Zach Miller caught two scoring passes in his last game against Cleveland.
It's been a lot of bending, but not so much breaking on defense for the Browns, who are only 24th in league in per-game yardage allowed (358.6) but move up to 10th in scoring defense, allowing just 20.2 points per game. One competitive problem, though, is that two of the nine teams ahead of them -- Pittsburgh and Baltimore -- also reside in their division. Opposing passers have cashed in for 245.2 yards per week on a 61.8 completion percentage with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions against Cleveland. On the ground, runners have managed just 3.9 yards per carry and 113.2 yards per game on the Browns, who are 19th in the league in run defense. Safety T.J. Ward leads the team with 75 total tackles, including 56 solos, while veteran linebacker Scott Fujita is second with 51 stops, though the ex-Super Bowl winner with New Orleans is nursing a knee injury and is out indefinitely. The defense combined for three sacks in its last game against Jacksonville, while linebacker Marcus Benard has a career-best 5 1/2 sacks through nine games and cornerback Eric Wright had an interception is his last meeting with Jacksonville.
McCoy has made himself starter-worthy material with his four-game run and Hillis is rapidly entering no-brainer territory with the season he's having. Outside of that, the Browns' options dwindle to perhaps kicker Dawson and maybe the Cleveland defense. For the Jaguars, Garrard has emerged as a sleeper pick in the last couple weeks and Jones-Drew is regaining the place of prominence he's occupied for the last several years. Outside of them, though, the pickings are similarly slim.
The Jaguars have a better record and are coming off a win, but a here-one- week, gone-the-next tendency make it difficult to consistently rely on them. The Browns are slightly less successful, but probably more stable and surely bursting with confidence after playing tough against the league's elite for four straight weeks. Add in the weird tendency of the road team to dominate in this series, and it's Browns Town in northeast Florida.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Browns 20, Jaguars 14
11/18 13:52:20 ET