NFL Preview - Cleveland (5-9) at Denver (11-3)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Few would blame the Denver Broncos if they are on cruise control. After all, they have already clinched the AFC West and are on their longest winning streak in 14 years.
Despite all those accolades, the Broncos still have something to play for as they can wrap up a first-round bye this Sunday with a win over the visiting Cleveland Browns and a little bit of help.
Denver owns one of the top records in the league at 11-3 and comes into this showdown riding a nine-game winning streak. That is the longest for the franchise since it won the first 13 games of the 1998 season en route to its second straight Super Bowl victory.
The Broncos' current run has them on the verge of securing an extra week of rest in the postseason as they can clinch a bye with a victory over the Browns on Sunday and a New England Patriots loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Denver did something it had never done before last weekend, beating the Ravens in Baltimore for the first time in six trips there. The Broncos bested the Ravens 34-17, getting three touchdowns from their offense as well as a key interception return for a score by cornerback Chris Harris in the second quarter.
Peyton Manning threw for 204 yards and hit wide receiver Eric Decker for a 51- yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, while Knowshon Moreno ran for 118 yards and found the end zone once on 22 carries.
Harris, though, had the big play, undercutting a pass attempt by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and racing 98 yards for a score. Harris' pick-six was the longest in team history and prevented Baltimore from making it a three- point game.
"Baltimore had some momentum there on the drive and looks like they're probably going to get the touchdown, plus they get the ball the first series of the second half," Manning said. "So just a huge play. The turnover is good, the fact that he took it all the way to the house for a touchdown was even bigger."
While the Broncos are coming off a rare win in Baltimore, they have had a great deal of success against the Browns. Denver has won each of its last nine meetings with Cleveland, having not lost to the franchise since Oct. 8, 1990 in Denver.
The Broncos own an 18-5 advantage in the all-time regular-season series.
Denver will try not to look past a Cleveland club that is 5-9 but does own a pair of victories this season over some playoff-caliber clubs in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
The Browns are looking to rebound after having a three-game win streak halted last Sunday with a 38-21 setback to the Washington Redskins.
Cleveland failed to take advantage of Redskins rookie phenom Robert Griffin III missing the game with a knee injury. Rookie teammate Kirk Cousins instead torched the Browns for 329 yards passing with a pair of touchdown throws.
Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden threw for 244 yards with a score, but threw a pair of second-half interceptions that led to Redskins touchdowns.
"As happy as I've been the last three weeks, standing up here talking about team victories, I think it's safe to say this was a team loss," said Browns coach Pat Shurmur. "I thought we struggled to move the ball effectively throughout the game and I have to credit them for doing that. We knew coming in it would be a challenge."
Trent Richardson ran for a pair of touchdowns in the loss, which denied Cleveland its first four-game winning streak since 2009.
Cleveland is looking to finish 4-0 against the AFC West this season and post its sixth victory of the season, which would be the most for the franchise since its 10-win campaign in 2007.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Manning has helped elevate the Broncos' passing game to one of the best in the league, but a resurgent Moreno has added another dimension to the offense.
Moreno was inactive for eight straight games from Sept. 23-Nov. 18, but has ripped off 391 rushing yards in four games since his return to the lineup following a season-ending knee injury to Willis McGahee.
"I feel really good about it. I just want to keep this thing going. I don't want to have any hiccups. I just want to keep working hard so we can get better," said Moreno.
The back has averaged 121.8 yards per game from scrimmage over the last four weeks, ranked fourth in the NFL.
"This game is about opportunities and when you're given those opportunities, it's about what you do with them," Broncos head coach John Fox said of Moreno. "He had his opportunity when Willis went down and he's done a great job."
The Browns have also gotten solid if at times inconsistent production from its starting running back this season.
Richardson's two touchdowns on Sunday gave him 11 on the season, a new Browns rookie record. He has also set a rookie record for the franchise with 12 total touchdowns, while his 897 rushing yards are the second-most by a first-year Browns back behind only Jim Brown's 942 amassed in 1957.
The third overall pick of the 2012 draft, Richardson also leads the Browns' 26th-ranked offense with 48 receptions, but has struggled to pile up yards at times this season. The 22-year-old has been held to fewer than 50 yards on the ground in seven of his 14 starts on the year while battling a nagging rib injury.
Some have thought that Richardson will need to change his style and differ from the way he tore through defenses while with Alabama, but Shurmur sees it as a learning process for his back.
"Here's a rookie grinding through an NFL season. He's far less than a hundred percent," the Browns coach said. "I think we handed him the ball twice (Sunday) and he scored touchdowns. He's getting in the end zone. He's one of our leading receivers. He's got a lot on his plate and he's battling. Would I agree that yards per rush should be better? Yeah, but I'm not disappointed."
Richardson and Weeden are two of 10 different rookies to start for the Browns this season and join right tackle Mitchell Schwartz as the only three to start all 14 games.
Weeden, who at 29 years old is quite the elder statesman for a rookie, faces a Broncos defense that ranks fourth in total defense and second against the run.
Denver's defense held Baltimore to just 12 first downs last weekend and none over the club's first six drives.
Weeden figures to see a lot of defensive end Elvis Dumervil and linebacker Von Miller, who is just the second player since 1994 to record at least 15 sacks, 25 tackles for a loss and five forced fumbles in a season.
Miller has 16 sacks on the season and needs to just one more to match Dumervil's single-season record set in 2009.
"He may be the fastest guy on their defense, corners and safeties included," Browns offensive lineman Joe Thomas said of Miller. "I don't know if he runs a 4.5 or a 4.4 or whatever he is, but there's nobody that's quicker or faster at outside linebacker, that's for sure. He may be one of the fastest linebackers in the league."
Cleveland placed starting strong safety T.J. Ward on injured reserve Tuesday due to a knee injury that will not require surgery. Ward had 68 tackles and forced a club-high three fumbles this season.
If there is one area that the Broncos need to clean up it is in the turnover department. That may be an issue against a Browns team that has a plus-7 ratio, but Manning and company did not turn the ball over against the Ravens.
Speaking of Manning, Fox should feel fortunate that he has the veteran under center as he should be key to helping the club stay focused and not looking towards the playoffs too early.
"Right now, I know we can control our own destiny, but if we don't play our best game against Cleveland this week, that will be all for naught," Fox noted.
Cleveland won't be going to the playoffs, but with a number of rookies getting snaps over the final two weeks, the Browns should have plenty of energy and motivation. That could definitely work in their favor against a club that has already punched a favorable position in the playoffs.
"We've got eight quarters to play, eight quarters to put our best work on film regardless of what the situation is moving forward," Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. "I've been in this position a ton of times. We know we can win games. (Sunday) was just not a good group effort from all phases. We'll go to Denver ready to play and get a win."
It's a nice thought, but Manning is just too smart and savvy to let that happen.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 31, Browns 17
12/20 13:33:32 ET