The stage is set. The Raiders and Browns meet up in Week 16 with both teams coming off impressive victories. The Raiders victory was a one point, last minute, come from behind affair over the playoff hopeful rival Broncos. The Browns win was a high scoring, back and forth affair to pull out a win over the Chiefs.
There is a surprisingly high level of anticipation for this game. It is surprising because these two teams have a total of 8 wins between them. But Charlie Frye is making his return to Cleveland after having grown up in Ohio, gone to college in Ohio and being drafted by the Browns and that is quite an interesting story line all by itself. Throw in Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan lining up on the opposite sideline to face his former team for the first time, and the pot has sufficiently been stirred.
The Browns are playing for pride but are also just playing out the season to decide how high they will be drafting again next year. The Raiders will be trying to stave off another double digit losing season for the first time since they made the Super Bowl after the 2002 season. A win this week will mean the most wins they have had in any season during that span.
I said at the beginning of the season that anything less than a 7-9 record will not save Tom Cable's job. And whether that is truly what happens will depend completely on this week's game. If they win out, he will be the head coach next season. If he loses one of them, it better be the game against the Ravens because that one is much easier to explain.
Here are the keys to the Raiders leaving Cleveland with a win this week:
Man on man lockdown
Last week, Cleveland running back Jerome Harrison had 286 yards rushing which is the third most all time in NFL history. You can bet that after that performance you are going to see a heavy dose of Harrison on Sunday. Add to that the fact that Brady Quinn was hurt in last week's game, giving Derek Anderson the start. Anderson has not played well at all this season at quarterback and the Browns will be hesitant to throw the ball. What this means is that the Raiders will be putting as many bodies in the box as they can manage. The Raider corners are used to playing man defense and that will serve them well in this game because each on of them will be living on their own island. The Raiders will need one of either Michael Huff, Tyvon Branch or both to play up to protect against the run almost constantly. While the other will usually be covering the tight end. The game plan will be to make Anderson beat them all day because that puts the odds in the Raiders' favor. Afterall, Anderson has the worst quarterback rating the entire NFL among starting quarterbacks at just 36.2 and is 42% on completions. Brady Quinn had a much better passer rating (67.2) which isn't saying much. That also exposes the Raider defense to big plays downfield if the corners aren't hugging the Browns' receivers like gloves.
Joshua Cribbs is now officially the most potent kick off return specialist in the history of the game. Early this week, it was reported that the Raiders' plan to not kick away from him. I sure hope they are not serious. The Raiders have one of the strongest legged kickers in the league in Sebastian Janikowski. He had 4 touchbacks on 5 kicks last week, and ranks third in the league in touchback percentage. The Raiders need a similar performance from him this week. It will be much more difficult to kick out of the back of the end zone in the typically heavy, humid air in Cleveland than it was in the thin air in Denver. The Raider return coverage teams have been truly horrid this season and consistently allow opposing returners good yardage and the field position advantage. While the Browns are ranked fourth in the NFL is average kick return yards. Cribbs will be licking his chops at the opportunity to cut through this group of guys. And even if he doesn't score again, he leads the league with 6 returns of over 40 yards so you can bet he will get good penetration if he gets the ball in his hands. So kicking away from him may not be the order of the day but kicking over his head would be ideal.
Hand it to Bush
The Browns may have had a big day from their back who nearly matched his entire season total in one game, but the Raiders also had a big game last week from their running back. Michael Bush had 133 yards rushing and a touchdown last week. He is the only Raider running back to run for over 100 yards this season and he has done it twice. Add to that, his 177 yard effort to finish off last season, and he has had the last three 100+ yard games for the Raiders. The Browns defense is ranked 31 in the league just ahead of the Detroit Lions. Even with the record breaking performances of Harrison and Cribbs last week, the Chiefs still managed to continuously answer them score for score right up to the end of the game. Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles had a pretty big day with 154 yards against the Browns last week and Bush has shown that he is capable of churning out yards as well as breaking off the big runs consistently.
The Raiders will yet again be going for the ever elusive two wins in a row. Something they haven't done this season even though they are 3-3 since the midseason bye week. This team should have forgotten about the win in Denver the day after it happened. There is no time to celebrate the last win. The Browns are not to be overlooked or taken lightly. Getting high on their own accomplishments has long been to the Raiders' detriment. After every win this season, the Raiders have come out the following week and have gotten pummeled. These same Raiders, after a big win over the Steelers, faced the Redskins and were demolished. While these same Browns also beat the Steelers just a week after. The Chiefs beat the Raiders this season and the Browns just beat the Chiefs. So if the Raiders take too long patting themselves on the back and then think this game will be a walk in the park, they are in for a tough lesson...again.