By Rich Kurtzman
Denver is a mile high above everyone else.
At least, on this current nine-game winning streak, an NFL long this season. The 11-3 Broncos are on a roll, winning in a variety of ways; Peyton Manning’s led the offense to domineering performances, the defense has turned over opponents and turned them into touchdowns and even Trindon Holliday has scored on special teams. Denver’s come back from huge deficits to win, they’ve gritted out close victories and even controlled from start to finish—they’re arguably the best team in professional football right now.
This week, they host the Cleveland Browns, a team doing better as of late than their 5-9 record suggests. As John Fox pointed out Wednesday, Cleveland has swept the AFC West so far and they’ve won three of their last four games. He doesn’t want his Broncos to overlook these bad Browns, and there’s no way Manning will allow his teammates to.
Cleveland spent two first round picks this season and found two of their best young players in Trent Richardson (No. 3) and Brandon Weeden (No. 22). Richardson, the former Heisman Trophy winner out of Alabama, is on pace to go over 1,000 yards rushing in his rookie season. He’s run for 897 yards with an exceptional 11 touchdowns. Richardson’s a bruiser, carrying a load of 230 pounds, able to bust tough runs inside. If there’s a knock on him, it’s his 3.5 yards per carry, but the Browns’ offensive line doesn’t do him many favors. The first-year phenom has also caught 48 yards out of the backfield for 352 yards and another score, leading his team in receptions as well.
Handing the ball off and throwing it to him is fellow rookie Brandon Weeden. Weeden’s not your average rookie; at 29-years old, he’s much more mature than other first-year quarterbacks. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t gone through some growing pains. While he’s tossed for over 3,200 yards, it’s been on an unimpressive 57.2 completion percentage. And his 14 touchdowns thrown are so-so, but they look worse with the 17 interceptions he’s given away. Besides just Richardson, Weeden has a talented duo of young receivers to toss to. Josh Gordon 759 yards and five touchdowns receiving each lead the team. He’s speedster that averages an amazing 16.9 yards per reception, and will be a handful for the Denver defensive backfield. As will Greg Little, a bigger and more physical receiver at 6’2” 231 pounds. Little’s third with 551 yards receiving with two touchdowns as well.
Defensively, the Browns bring a secondary that knows how to create interceptions. Their 16 on the season is good for seventh-best in the league, and both starting cornerbacks Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown are tied with three picks each. Manning has undoubtedly been studying their tenancies, and he’ll look to take advantage of whatever weaknesses he can find in the young corners’ games. Middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson leads the team in tackles, with 101 combined, while he also has 3.5 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He’ll be a key player for the Broncos’ offensive line to find, and without right guard Chris Kuper again, Jackson could add to his sack total this Sunday if he’s not accounted for. Left defensive end Jabaal Sheard’s five sacks are a Browns’ best, meaning Denver tackle Ryan Clady will be tested early and often this weekend.
In all, while Cleveland does have lots of young playmakers, they’re not nearly the complete team that the Broncos are. Denver should win, and win easy, but if they overlook the Browns even a little bit, the men from the Mile High City could lose their first game since early October.
The game kicks off at 2 p.m. MT Sunday and will be televised on CBS.
For more Local Football Bloggers and the latest Broncos news, see CBS Sports Denver.
Rich Kurtzman is a Denver native, Colorado State University alumnus, sports nerd, athletics enthusiast, and competition junkie. Currently writing for a multitude of websites while working on books, one on the history of the Denver Broncos and Mile High Stadium. Find more of Rich’s Denver Broncos pieces on Examiner.com.