The Browns come to town tonight in a key Monday night football game. They are only 4-9 so it isn't the most compelling matchup, but the game is important because the Eagles must win to keep pace in the hunt for a wild card berth.
This game is a lot more about the Eagles than the Browns. Their team has been hit with injuries and too many guys are simply underperforming. Most of the players from last year's team (10-6 record) are back. They just aren't getting the job done this time around.
Cleveland has lost both of its starting quarterbacks, Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. That made a bad season worse. They now look to Ken Dorsey to try and salvage a couple of wins on the backside of the season.
This is a Monday night game and that does bring out the best in some teams and players. Cleveland is 2-0 this year on Monday nights. They had Anderson and Quinn for those games so you can't say that playing on Monday night will be the same with Dorsey under center. Still, it does show that the team gets up for the spotlight games.
Those players know that 30 other teams will be sitting at home tonight and watching. They want to play well in front of their peers. The Eagles had a linebacker a few years back named Nate Wayne. He was Mr. Monday Night. Wayne could almost be counted on to come up with a big play. He was highly inconsistent on Sundays and that hurt his career.
The Eagles have dominated division winners in consecutive weeks. They cannot lose focus just because the Browns aren't a good team. Andy Reid needs to make sure his players know that they cannot let up. Winning is important, but I think playing well is also important.
The team is on a roll right now. They are moving the ball, converting on third downs, scoring points and playing good defense. That needs to continue tonight. I hope Reid lets the offensive attack remain balanced in terms of run/pass ratio. Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, and the rest of the offense are clicking. As the old saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Westbrook has been the real key in all of this. He's got 64 touches and six touchdowns in the last two games. The coaches are feeding him the ball and he is making plays. When your best player is at his best, the team is going to play well and be tough to beat.
The Browns' best defensive player is nose tackle Shaun Rogers. He's having a terrific season for them. He leads the team in sacks and tackles-for-loss. That is amazing for a big, run-stuffing type of defensive lineman. Jamaal Jackson and the guards will have their hands full in controlling him. You want to double Rogers as much as possible. Jackson has the size to fare well against Rogers. Todd Herremans is playing the best of any Eagles offensive lineman, so I trust him. Nick Cole had a good start last week. This will be a challenge for him. I'm curious to see how he'll do.
Cleveland's offense hasn't scored a touchdown in three straight games. They've put up a total of 21 points in those contests. That would indicate the Eagles defense won't be challenged, but I'm not sure I'd go that far. The Browns do have some talented offensive players. Braylon Edwards has as much talent as any receiver in the NFL. He's just been incredibly inconsistent this year. Running back Jamal Lewis is a solid power runner. He doesn't have the speed to break many long plays anymore.
Joshua Cribbs is a guy that will make Jim Johnson nervous. Cribbs is used as a receiver, runner and even quarterback. He played quarterback collegiately at Bowling Green. Urban Meyer was his coach for a couple of years. Cribbs threw a downfield pass last week to Edwards that was almost completed for a long gain. The ball was right on the sideline and Edwards couldn't get both feet in. Defenders have to worry about him throwing the ball when he's under center. Cribbs hasn't completed a pass yet, but no coach wants to get burned by him. He's dangerous when he has the ball in space. Cribbs has a 27-yard run and 17-yard catch this year in addition to a kickoff return for a score.
The Browns' passing attack doesn't completely many deep or intermediate throws. They are 31st in the league in yards per pass attempt. As long as the Eagles defenders tackle well they should be able to control the Cleveland offense.
I expect Jim Johnson to start somewhat conservative on defense. Why be risky and give them a chance for a big play? See if the Browns can move the ball methodically up the field. They've struggled with that all year long. When you take away tight end Kellen Winslow (out, ankle) and have the No. 3 quarterback running things, the Eagles defense should be able to handle the Browns without blitzing. You don't go away from your pressure game completely, but you give your players a chance to win playing straight-up and see how things go.
I wouldn't count on a bunch of sacks. Cleveland quarterbacks have only been sacked 16 times all year. Pressure can lead to turnovers. The Browns have eight turnovers in the last three games. A couple of interceptions from Dorsey would be a nice pre-Christmas gift to the defense.
This is absolutely a must-win game for the Eagles. Obviously, they need to win out to have a realistic shot at the playoffs, but it is "must win" because the schedule has given them a poor team at a time when victories are crucial. When the football gods offer you a gift you must take advantage of it. As conventional wisdom would tell you - if you can't beat the Browns who are starting a third-string quarterback, you don't deserve to go to the playoffs.