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NFL Preview - Cleveland (1-5) at New Orleans (4-2)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Gentlemen, start your "from the frying pan into the fire" analogies.
Fresh off his NFL maiden voyage against the six-time Super Bowl champion and perennial playoff-contending Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend, former University of Texas passing stud Colt McCoy takes his second dip into the pool against a more recent title-level foe this Sunday.
But even with the defending Lombardi Trophy claimants, the New Orleans Saints, coming straight for McCoy in the Superdome, the one-time veteran Longhorn turned current Cleveland Browns rookie seems to at least have the correct attitude.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," McCoy said this week, fresh off a 23- for-33 effort for 281 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions against Pittsburgh. "What a challenge, what an opportunity, a chance to go out on the field and get better and get this team back on track."
Browns coach Eric Mangini said Wednesday that McCoy, who began the season at No. 3 on the depth chart, was likely to get another start in place of injured veterans Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace, who remain hobbled by lingering ankle injuries.
Brought in during the offseason after a career-defining stay with Carolina, Delhomme completed just 33 of 60 passes for a touchdown and four interceptions in abbreviated duty before being replaced by Wallace, who went 63-of-100 with four scores and an 88.5 quarterback rating prior to his own shelving.
One or the other is expected to resume starting after Cleveland's bye next weekend.
But with an eye on the longer term, the reviews for McCoy are positive.
"You can tell that he is a natural-born leader," Browns guard Eric Steinbach said. "It is good to have him in the huddle. A lot of rookies can't come in right away. They may want to be a leader, but they don't have that 'it'."
Meanwhile, last February's "it" guy showed last week his team's season was not lost.
Drew Brees, the ex-San Diego castoff who lifted the Saints and their city to elite status last winter, rebounded from a Week 5 loss to Arizona with a 2009- esque performance at Tampa Bay that reestablished New Orleans as top dog in the NFC South.
Brees completed 21-of-32 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-6 rout of the Buccaneers, maintaining his yardage and scoring totals at conference-best levels through six games and lifting the Saints into a two-way tie with Atlanta atop the division. The Falcons lost, 31-17, at Philadelphia last weekend to end a four-game win streak.
Also noteworthy in the Tampa Bay game was the emergence of young New Orleans running back Chris Ivory, who rushed for 158 yards on just 15 carries to raise his season total to 277 yards on 44 attempts, a 6.3-yard average per carry.
"It's out there for the taking," Brees said of overall NFC supremacy. "Obviously we went into the season feeling that way. Really nothing's going to change that mentality for us. We're a confident group. We have some swagger. We know how good we are and how good we can be. We still don't feel like we've scratched the surface to where we can go as a football team."
Cleveland owns a 11-4 edge in its all-time series with New Orleans, but was a 19-14 home loser when the teams last squared off, in the 2006 regular season opener. That contest marked the formal start of the Sean Payton era for the Saints. The Browns won the three previous meetings with the Saints, including a 24-15 win at the Superdome in 2002. Cleveland is 2-0 in New Orleans since last losing there in 1990, and is 7-2 in the Crescent City all-time.
Payton is 1-0 in his career against the Browns. Mangini will be meeting both Payton and the Saints for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
All eyes will be on McCoy's progress after he posted a respectable 80-plus passer rating in last week's starting debut. In the backfield, he can turn to emerging workhorse running back Peyton Hillis, who's already got five touchdowns (four rushing, one receiving) to approach his career-best total of six, set with Denver in 2008. Though still listed as questionable after a vicious hit from Pittsburgh's James Harrison that cost the linebacker a $75,000 fine, wideout Mohamed Massaquoi is progressing and could suit up Sunday to add to the two touchdowns he's scored in his last three games against NFC foes. Also dinged-up after a Harrison hit last week is versatile receiver/return man Joshua Cribbs. Both receivers were still listed as doubtful in the days leading up to the game. Elsewhere, tight end Benjamin Watson is four catches away from 200 for his career and is aiming for a fifth game in a row with at least five catches. Another tight end, Evan Moore, has a gaudy 22.4 yards per catch average on nine receptions thus far.
Though it's not always considered a strong suit, the Saints' defense has been at least respectable in keeping foes off the scoreboard, allowing 108 points through six games that's just seven more than co-South leader Atlanta over the same stretch. New Orleans has held two opponents (Minnesota and Tampa Bay) to single-digit point totals and has allowed only one (Arizona) to reach 30. Two teams nicked them for 30 points last season, while the majority of the rest (10-of-14) managed at least 20. Teams this year have averaged 301.5 total yards against a unit that's led in sacks by tackle Sedrick Ellis' three, while four players have reeled in at least one interception apiece. Middle linebacker and ex-Jet Jonathan Vilma and safety Roman Harper have eclipsed the 30-tackle mark with 36 and 32, respectively. Harper had a sack in his lone career meeting with the Browns and forced two fumbles last week against the Bucs. End Will Smith also had a sack his last time out against Cleveland, while Ellis aims for a fourth straight home date with at least one.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Folks still unaware will see that this Brees kid is pretty good. He is 3-0 in his career as a starter against the Browns and a winner in eight straight against AFC opposition -- including one against the Indianapolis Colts in a pretty big game last February. In those eight contests, he's completed 70.5 percent of his passes for 15 touchdowns and a 108.2 rating. And in home games since the outset of 2008, Brees has connected on 70.2 percent of his throws for 6,347 yards and an even shinier 114.6 rating. New Orleans is 29-6 when he hits triple digits in that category. In addition to Ivory's breakout game last week, the Saints hope to be able to turn to running back Pierre Thomas, who's amassed 618 scrimmage yards (103 per game) and six touchdowns in his last six against the AFC, including the Super Bowl win. However, Thomas has missed three straight games with a high ankle sprain and could be held out again this week. On the outside, wide receiver and ex-Hofstra steal Marques Colston goes for a third straight game with the other conference that's included a touchdown catch. In fact, he scored the first touchdown of his career against Cleveland in September of 2006.
On the Browns' side, status quo has been just good enough -- as in just good enough to lose each week. Though they've been gashed for nearly 50 more yards per contest, Cleveland is in similar circles to New Orleans in terms of points allowed, having held their first two opponent to the teens (both losses) before the last four have landed in the 20's (three losses). Most troubling for the team has been stopping opposing runners, who've gained an average of 120.2 yards on 30 carries a game through six weeks. Passers are connecting at a 63.1 percent rate while averaging 228.8 yards per week. Cleveland has picked off just four passes in six games -- with four players having one each -- which has contributed to a minus-4 turnover ratio after six games. Rookie safety T.J. Ward, the team�s second-round pick (38th overall) in April, leads all Cleveland players with 48 tackles, including 35 unassisted. Another rookie, cornerback and Florida product Joe Haden, had his first career interception last week against Pittsburgh. Veteran linebacker Scott Fujita was a Saint from 2006-09.
With the fluid situations at both quarterback and wideout due to injuries, only Hillis in the backfield and Watson at tight end are legitimate candidates for Cleveland in a scenario where receivers Chansi Stuckey and Brian Robiskie will be seeing extended playing time. For the Saints, on the other hand, Brees, Ivory and Colston are all strong plays, while tight end Jeremy Shockey and kicker Garrett Hartley warrant a thought as well. New Orleans is also viable on defense with a date against a rookie quarterback.
Every now and then, there comes a lock. This appears to be one of those games. The collision of a novice rookie quarterback -- albeit a good one -- and a homestanding Super Bowl champion doesn't often bode well for the former. Add to it the fact that the Saints seemed to find themselves last week on the road, and it gets even worse for anyone outside the Cleveland die-hard set.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Saints 30, Browns 10
10/21 16:35:11 ET