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NFL Preview - Cleveland (4-9) at Arizona (6-7)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A three-game winning streak has kept the Arizona Cardinals' faint playoff hopes alive, but head coach Ken Whisenhunt wants his team to continue taking things one week at a time.
That hopefully starts with the Cardinals recording their longest winning streak in 12 years this Sunday against the Cleveland Browns in a matchup between two clubs that could be without their starting quarterbacks due to concussions.
Arizona has won five of six since a six-game slide and is now just one game under .500. That has the Cardinals 2 1/2 games back of Atlanta and two behind Detroit in the race for the NFC's two Wild Card spots with three to play.
"I know that we're still alive, obviously, but we're not going to get into scenarios or what happens this or that or anything like that," said Whisenhunt of Arizona's playoff chances. "None of that matters if we don't win this week."
The Cardinals won three in a row for the first time since 2009 with last weekend's 21-19 victory over NFC West champion San Francisco, getting the go- ahead score early in the fourth quarter on John Skelton's three-yard pass to wideout Andre Roberts.
Skelton came into the game when Kevin Kolb was forced out on the team's first possession on a hit that resulted in concussion-like symptoms. Kolb, who was playing in his second game after missing four in a row with a foot injury, did not come back into the contest and Whisenhunt said on Monday there is no timetable for his return.
That means the Cardinals could be going with Skelton this weekend as they try to win four in a row for the first time since 1999. Arizona is 4-1 this year in games Skelton plays in.
"Skelton did a great job coming in without getting a lot of reps this week and making some plays," said Whisenhunt, who tied Don Coryell for the most wins (42) in franchise history as a head coach.
Arizona plays the finale of a three-game homestand and is 4-2 at University of Phoenix Stadium this season.
The Browns could be without their starting quarterback as well after Colt McCoy took a helmet-to-helmet hit from the Steelers' James Harrison in a 14-3 setback in Pittsburgh on Dec. 8. McCoy initially came out due to a hand injury, but returned to action. It was after the game in which he started to show concussion-like symptoms, leading to some questions about how the Browns handled McCoy's situation.
Head coach Pat Shurmur, though, defended his team's decision to send McCoy back into the game on Monday.
"We followed all the proper medical procedures," he said. "I don't know what got reported other than what [the media is] telling me now, but we followed all the proper medical procedures and that's where it's at."
Harrison, meanwhile, was suspended for one game by the league for his hit on McCoy.
Shurmur said he hoped to get McCoy back at practice this week as the club tries to avoid a fourth straight loss. The Browns nearly pulled ahead of the Steelers in Week 14, getting to the opposing five-yard line late before McCoy was picked off in the end zone. Pittsburgh then sealed the win with a 79-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Antonio Brown to hand Cleveland its sixth loss in seven games.
"We felt good. We just couldn't score points. That's the problem," said McCoy. "We've got to figure it out. We moved the ball well."
Cleveland has lost five in a row on the road since a win at Indianapolis on Sept. 18 and plays the second of three straight on the road this Sunday. The Browns also visit Baltimore next weekend.
Cleveland sports a 33-12-3 advantage in an overall series with the Cardinals that dates back to the 1950 season, when the latter was then located in Chicago, but was handed a 27-21 defeat by Arizona at University of Phoenix Stadium when these teams last met in 2007. The Browns also lost to the Cardinals on the road by a 29-21 count in 2000, but did produce a 44-6 rout over Arizona in Cleveland during the 2003 season. The Browns' last victory as the visitor in this set took place on Oct. 23, 1988, a 29-21 verdict at Sun Devil Stadium.
Whisenhunt won his only previous matchup against the Browns with that 2007 result, while Shurmur will be facing both the Cardinals and Whisenhunt for the first time in a head-coaching capacity.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Scoring has been a problem for Cleveland all season, as it ranks 30th in the NFL with an average of 13.7 points per game and also owns the league's 29th- ranked offense. Against the Steelers, the Browns did not find the scoreboard again following a 20-yard field goal from Phil Dawson with 9:22 left in the first quarter. McCoy (2733 passing yards, 14 TD, 11 INT) threw for 209 yards and was sacked three times while also getting picked off twice. He wasn't the only player to come out of the game injured, as wide receiver Joshua Cribbs (31 receptions, 4 TD) missed most of the night with a groin ailment and tight end Benjamin Watson (37 receptions, 2 TD) sustained a concussion. Watson is doubtful for this game, while Cribbs hopes to return. Eight different players caught passes from McCoy in the loss, led by tight end Evan Moore's (25 receptions, 3 TD) four catches for 55 yards. Rookie wide receiver Greg Little (52 receptions, 1 TD) has emerged as one of McCoy's favorite targets and leads the team in receptions and receiving yards, while Mohamed Massaquoi (24 receptions, 2 TD) was targeted a team-high seven times versus Pittsburgh. Running back Peyton Hillis (346 rushing yards, 2 TD) had 25 yards on 10 carries against the Steelers and Montario Hardesty (268 rushing yards) added 24 on 11 attempts for Cleveland's 29th-ranked ground game.
Defense has keyed Arizona's recent turnaround. Though the Cardinals still rank 18th in points allowed per game (22.2), the unit has allowed only six touchdowns in its past six outings. Arizona has also dialed up the pressure, getting 10 sacks from eight different players over the past two games. Five separate defenders got to the quarterback in last weekend's win, with tackle Darnell Dockett (38 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and end Calais Campbell (60 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT) logging sacks for a second straight week. Nose tackle Nick Eason, linebacker and leading tackler Daryl Washington (78 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT) and cornerback Patrick Peterson (57 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) also recorded sacks for a group that held the 49ers to just two first downs in the second half. Linebacker Paris Lenon (77 tackles, 3 sacks) is right behind Washington for the team lead in tackles, while Campbell is one sack shy of setting a new career high. Rookie linebacker Sam Acho (32 tackles, 5 sacks) ranks second on the club in sacks. Cornerback Richard Marshall (60 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) teams with Peterson in the secondary, which also features veteran Adrian Wilson (47 tackles, 1 INT) at safety.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Skelton (1032 passing yards, 9 TD, 8 INT) continues to produce wins, but he also has had a habit of turning the ball over. He completed touchdown passes to three different receivers versus the 49ers, but was picked off twice. He'll need better ball control for Arizona's 24th-ranked offense if he gets the call for Kolb (1955 passing yards, 9 TD, 8 INT). Looking wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's way would also be smart. Fitzgerald (62 receptions, 7 TD) led the team with seven catches and 149 yards last week, going over 1,000 yards on the season for a club-record sixth time thanks in part to a 46-yard touchdown reception and a 53-yard grab that set up Roberts' game-winning score. Roberts (35 receptions, 1 TD) made only two catches, while Early Doucet (48 receptions, 5 TD) had three grabs for 73 yards. That included a 60-yard score that was Arizona's league-leading ninth touchdown of 50-plus yards. Running back and Akron native Beanie Wells (943 rushing yards, 9 TD) ran for only 27 yards against a tough San Francisco run defense a week ago, leaving him 57 shy of becoming the first Cardinal to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since Edgerrin James in 2007. Wells played his college ball at Ohio State.
Wells will look to run wild against his hometown team, as the Browns rank 31st in the league with 150.9 yards allowed per game on the ground. They gave up 147 to the Steelers in Week 14, though they also came up with a big goal-line stand in the fourth quarter. Cleveland does own the league's second-best pass defense, and the 280 yards allowed to Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger may have been lower if cornerback Joe Haden (55 tackles, 1 sack) hadn't slipped on Brown's long touchdown. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (125 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) was all over the field versus the Steelers, notching a season-high 13 tackles while adding a sack and a fumble recovery. Defensive back Mike Adams (50 tackles) matched a career high with 10 tackles and grabbed his team-leading third interception, while defensive lineman Scott Paxson (17 tackles) logged his first career sack. Haden ended with a personal-best eight tackles to go along with a forced fumble. Cleveland continues to get excellent production from two rookie linemen, end Jabaal Sheard (45 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Phil Taylor (49 tackles, 4 sacks) in the middle. Sheard has forced five fumbles this year to rank third in the league. Safety T.J. Ward (39 tackles, 1 sack) could return this weekend after missing the past five games with foot and finger ailments, with Usama Young (57 tackles, 1 INT) having been starting in his place.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Look for Wells to shine in his first NFL game against the Browns. He has been battling a knee injury for most of the season, but that didn't stop him from posting 228 yards in St. Louis on Nov. 27. The 229-pound back has been held to only 94 yards over the past two weeks, but should have plenty of room to operate this weekend.
If any receiver can break through against Cleveland's tough secondary, it is Fitzgerald. The 6-foot-3 playmaker has never faced the Browns and figures to see a lot of the 5-foot-11 Haden, while a possible return of Ward could also help the Browns' cause. Still, expect Skelton or Kolb to try and get Fitzgerald involved despite the matchup.
If McCoy does suit up, look for Arizona to pressure the quarterback hard. The second-year pro may get a little bit of happy feet given the vicious hit he took from Harrison a week ago, and some clean shots from the Cardinals' defense could rattle him.
Though the odds are against them, even a remote chance at the playoffs has to have the Cardinals excited about this matchup against the struggling Browns. Whisenhunt is right to have his troops looking solely at this game and not what the rest of the league is doing, and the Cardinals should have their heads up high afterwards. A healthy dose of Wells and Fitzgerald should be enough to overcome the Browns' solid play on defense, and Cleveland just isn't scoring enough on offense to be competitive. A defensive struggle may favor Cleveland, but it is likely that Arizona will put up enough points to win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 24, Browns 14
12/16 09:58:49 ET