Previewing the Jets vs. Browns

The Cleveland Browns have, by and large, been a bore since returning to the National Football League near the turn of the century. They had been previously erased, relocated to Baltimore under a new moniker, in a decision which devastated a loyal fan-base. Proving once more that favorable Stadium deals far exceed an organization’s appreciation for legitimate city connections, Art Modell shipped his Browns elsewhere. They became the Ravens, ultimately winning a Super Bowl. Modell was defended by fellow owners. Stunning…

 As for the replacement Browns, there has been an occasional flash of interest, a spark of revival briefly flickering before fading once more. In 2002, an ultimately forgotten cast of characters sent Cleveland on the precipice of the AFC Divisional playoffs, as they ran up a seemingly comfortable lead in the wildcard round on the road against Pittsburgh. Kelly Holcomb was on fire, and the Browns were suddenly playing Cinderella. Unfortunately for them, and Head Coach Butch Davis, who couldn’t have imagined this would be the height of his professional coaching experience, their advantage gradually disintegrated. Tommy Maddox became unstoppable, big-play threat Dennis Northcutt dropped a pivotal, potentially game salting reception, and the new Browns, following in the twisted tradition of their predecessor, collapsed in January, epically. A resounding win announcing their reemergence had mutated into a crushing defeat.

 Since then, the Browns have never really recovered. First overall pick Tim Couch engaged in a quarterback battle with the aforementioned Holcomb, the Franchise ultimately suffering a loss. The organization failed to secure an identity, but surprisingly caught lightening in a bottle with a waiver wire project named Derek Anderson in 2007. Anderson, a gigantic archetype pocket passer, could not parlay his spectacular ‘07 into sustained success. Soon, another major regime, featuring Head Coach Romeo Crenel and General Manager Phil Savage, was tossed aside. It’s hard to conjure recent, notable events involving the Browns. They hired Mike Holmgren this past offseason, granting him executive powers and control of football operations. It was strange, considering Holmgren had been regarded as a far better Coach then General Manager. He, in fact, and seen his personnel machinations halted with the Seattle Seahawks.

 So just about everyone, coming into this season, was pretty much expecting Holmgren to fire Eric Mangini, the former Jets Head Coach, after another lackluster sixteen games. Mangini, in his second year coaching the team, had collected momentum at the end of ’09, ending an otherwise disastrous campaign on a winning streak. Mangini earned points for decisiveness, jettisoning the Browns’ signature talent, searching for a fresh start. If he’d been given the keys, for whatever reason, possessing enough notoriety to run the entire show, then his daring moves, made for the long-term, may have earned plaudits. But, as it stood, with the Browns looking like an outfit that needed all the help it could get, Mangini assumed the appearance as a desperate coach. It may not have been fair, but considering his nightmarish finish with the Jets, and the Browns’ performance until December, the negative labels were understandable.

And though it has been a difficult trip, Mangini has managed to coax his Browns back toward relevancy. They stand at the precipice of one of those precious flashes, where possibilities burst open, and long-suffering Clevelanders can at least consider the possibility for consistent excellence from the beleaguered Browns. The hope is legitimate. When considered in conjunction with the strong finish to ’09, and their enhanced level of play following the stage exits of Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace [Wallace is a favorite punching bag, but his numbers are actually quite good] the Browns have to be in the discussion reserved for young, rising teams. After all, their primary ‘back, Broncos castoff Peyton Hillis, is 24. Starting signal caller Colt McCoy is a rookie, playing extremely well. The defense has generated play-making, especially against the Saints. Indeed, the Browns just may be a rising force.

But there are two sides to this coin. Just because a team is on the cusp of securing respectability does not mean that they are impervious to regression. Peyton Hillis, who absolutely obliterated the Jets in 2008, officially setting off that team’s death spiral, is an injury risk every week due to his battering ram style. McCoy will inevitably be confronted by rookie challenges, and must not be fazed. Unless he is really special, this weakness alone may torpedo the Browns’ post-season aspirations.

This is a promising collection of talent, and it will be fascinating to witness their journey throughout 2010. Whether Mangini can elude Holmgren’s hammer will be interesting, as well. But in the short-term, the Browns remain a team that simply cannot misfire, relying singularly on talent. The Jets, frustrating to watch at times despite their 6-2 record, have constantly demonstrated that talent can overcome dire situations, even self-imposed struggles bought about due to poor execution. The Jets seem to be aware that they cannot survive, let alone thrive, throughout the remainder of their schedule without fortifying their weaknesses, and addressing a distressing tendency toward drawing penalties. They have said all the right things this week, preceding a potential swing game. More than anything, both the coaches and fans would probably duly appreciate a steady performance. New York has been forced to abandon their complete commitment to a ground and pound offense, due to imported offensive talent, and an adjusted running game which has recently lost some momentum.  In an affair such as this one, where the opposition will attempt contorting all four quarters into a physically brutal, defensive struggle, the Jets sure could use a dominant rushing day. Whether they can generate this type of blunt attack just may determine their success or failure this Sunday.

Mark Sanchez, struggling with his accuracy and decision-making of late, aside from a highly impressive final frame against the woeful Lions last week, will be confronted by the complicated defensive packages of Mangini and Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Cleveland will try wearing the Jets out with Hillis, and New York may be forced to answer in kind.

Prediction:

The importance of Darrelle Revis returning to form cannot be understated. Last season, the matchup between McCoy and the Jets secondary would be a slam dunk advantage for New York, potentially the difference in the game. They’d rely on their corners and stack the box to shut down Hillis. This year, however, the secondary has slumped. The explanations are surely many, ranging from Revis’ rust and absence to Cromartie’s penalties. Regardless, should the secondary rediscover last year’s aptitude in the second half of 2010, watch out.

In fact, that’s the primary reason I’m picking the Jets in this one, and by a pretty large margin. I think McCoy will finally struggle. The Browns will be forced to pass. The Jets will support Sanchez, with Shonn Greene belatedly breaking out.

Greene would earn kudos from Jets fans if he can still the spotlight from Hillis.

New York is clearly better, and remains due to play a solid game.

Jets 31 Browns 10

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