CLEVELAND - The Browns are preparing for higher ground on Sunday with a visit to Denver to face the hottest team in the NFL. The Broncos have won nine straight games and can clinch a bye in the playoffs with a win on Sunday.
The Browns will also be looking to break a nine game losing streak to Denver. The orange helmets haven't beaten the Broncos in more than 20 years. Last Browns win over Denver was October of 1990.
The Browns will face the most complete team they have faced all year long. Peyton Manning has been just what Denver needed and he has delivered. Manning has thrown for more than 4,000 yards on the season and 31 touchdowns. Manning's presence has been a breath of fresh air for receivers Eric Decker (923 yards) and Demaryus Thomas (1,210 yards). The duo has a chance to become the first 1,000 yard receiving duo in the Mile High city since 2004.
The Broncos have also found a running back after a rotation of many. Knowshon Moreno has averaged over 121 yards per game over the past four weeks and also is a pass catching threat out of the backfield.
The Broncos are currently ranked fifth in total yards per game (387.2), sixth in passing yards per game (277.1) and second in points scored (29.2).
The Browns challenge begins on defense with the master of motion at the line of scrimmage, Peyton Manning. D'Qwell Jackson has said the Browns defense has a lot of different looks they have not used yet this year adding, "But he has seen everything a defense could throw at him and it's not going to be much of a magic act out there, we just have to run our calls to the best of our abilities".
The Broncos defense is among the fastest in the NFL, the combo of Elvis Dumervill and Von Miller give offensive lines fits. Just ask Joe Thomas.
"It's tough to say definitively, ‘Yes, they are the best.' They're certainly in the top couple of tandems. They're definitely different than a lot of the guys that we face. We have a lot of respect for the guys in Cincinnati and some of those other groups that have outstanding defensive ends, but when you're talking about 3-4 outside linebacker, get after the quarterback on third down guys, it's hard to find anybody who's better," Thomas said.
The Browns have the ability to make big plays if they can give Brandon Weeden some time. Weeden, coming off one of his worst performances of the season, is looking forward to rebounding on the same field as his idol Peyton Manning. Weeden was asked how he can improve this week.
"Continue to put together good drives, good plays and finish strong. I think numbers being thrown out of the window, obviously now we're not in the playoff hunt anymore, now it's just going out, playing well and getting better. We have eight quarters of football to play so it's just finishing strong and leaving it all on the line."
Weeden has thrown just three touchdowns and five interceptions in the last four games, but the Browns offense is beginning to click, thanks to Josh Gordon. The rookie wide receiver leads all rookies in receiving yards with 759 and second in touchdowns with five. The Broncos will have to keep eyes on Gordon, because if Weeden gets time he will take shots deep to his fellow rookie.
Travis Benjamin has also developed into a threat both on special teams and offensively where he has produced touchdowns from each of the last two games. Greg Little has been solid as well, his 44 receptions and 551 yards receiving is second to Gordon.
Trent Richardson is battling thru a rib injury that would sideline most players, the fact the rookie is still upright at this point is a huge surprise. Richardson heads into the final two games, just 103 yards shy of 1,000 for the season. He has already set the teams rushing touchdown record for a rookie with eleven and has twelve total. Richardson is currently tied for second in scoring in the NFL with twelve total. Richardson is not about to slow down now with the finish line insight.
"Yeah, I'm good to go. Like I said, with the ribs, I am not going to stop playing ball. At the end of the day I am going to keep on going no matter what and I'll be ready for Sunday."
The Browns were officially eliminated from the playoffs last week and face a very tough final two games on the road at Denver and at Pittsburgh, but the pressure is not just on the field, but off. Pat Shurmur had this to say about his team's focus.
"I reminded the players, coaching and playing is what we do. At some point, somebody somewhere is going to tell them they can't do it anymore. They are going to miss it. What we owe ourselves and each other is that you prepare as well as you can, you get hydrated, you get on the plane go out there and play good football, and try to win the football game. That's what we all owe
each other and that's what we do."
The talk of change permeates the locker room, there is no way to avoid it. Changes are coming in Cleveland and fans and media can speculate all they want about who is in and who is out but all of it takes its toll, it has to. Maybe the best place this Browns team can be is on the field right now playing out the final two games of the year.