The Cleveland Browns are on a bit of a roll. So are the Jacksonville Jaguars, only it’s in the opposite direction.
The Browns (3-2) have won back-to-back games in dramatic fashion, first rallying from a 25-point deficit to beat Tennessee on the road and thumping the Pittsburgh Steelers by 21 points last Sunday in Cleveland. Now they’re being talked about as legitimate contenders for a playoff spot in the AFC.
The Jaguars (0-6) haven’t won a game since Dec. 5, 2013, and they’re being talked about as the favorite for the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2015.
The teams meet Sunday at EverBank Field; Browns reporter Pat McManamon and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco break down the matchup.
DiRocco: Pat, I think everyone outside the Cleveland organization expected Johnny Manziel to be the Browns’ starting quarterback by this point in the season. Brian Hoyer has done a good job, though, and it’s clearly his team now. But what about beyond this season? Is Manziel the franchise quarterback or is it Hoyer?
The Jaguars have lost 18 games in a row in September and October, tied with the Houston Oilers for the second-longest losing streak in NFL history. Cincinnati holds the record with 20 from 1992-94.
McManamon: If Hoyer keeps playing the way he has, it would be folly if the Browns did not re-sign him in the offseason. That puts Manziel in the spot of perhaps having to enter the 2015 training camp as the backup, and perhaps be the backup for the foreseeable future. Eleven games remain and a lot can happen yet, but to this point Hoyer is earning the right to be considered the long-term answer. He gets rid of the ball quickly. He does not throw interceptions. His even-keeled approach makes him a good leader. And the team respects him. Because Hoyer can be a free agent after the season, and because negotiations went nowhere in the offseason and Hoyer chose to bet on himself, this will be a closely watched story as the season progresses. But if Hoyer maintains his level of play, it would be impossible for the Browns to let the local product go.
This is rookie-quarterback weekend, Mike, and since everyone asks me about Manziel, I'll ask you about Blake Bortles. How has he played, what impresses you most and how far does he have to go?
DiRocco: Since being inserted into the lineup in the second half of the Week 3 loss to Indianapolis, Bortles has played pretty well and leads NFL rookies in passing yards per game (251), completion percentage (67.8) and completions of 20-plus yards (11). He has shown that he has a good feel in the pocket and is able to evade the rush and get outside when he needs to. When he does that, he’s keeping his eyes downfield, too, which is rare for a rookie quarterback that can run. Usually, they just take off. Plus, the coaching staff can’t stop raving about his poise and how unshakable he is. The thing that has impressed me the most has been his work on third down. The Jaguars were 6-for-32 on third down under Chad Henne but are 23-for-46 on third down under Bortles, and he leads the NFL in completion percentage on third down (71.0). Bortles is far from perfect. He still makes bad decisions, stares down receivers and throws some bad passes, but he already looks like the best quarterback the team has had since Mark Brunell in the late 1990s.
Losing Alex Mack was obviously a huge blow. We know what kind of effect that will have on the field, but how do you think it will impact the team in the locker room, considering he was one of the team’s leaders, especially this week?
McManamon: The respect that Mack has in the locker room and around the league was evident the day he was injured, so it matters that he’s not around. But Mack was never a vocal yeller or screamer. His leadership came from his consistency and his dependability. Losing his voice in the locker room matters, but as one scout told me during the week, that sometimes is overstated. The Browns have guys such as Joe Thomas and Hoyer and even John Greco who can step in. The team’s bigger issue is filling the void left on the field.
It's been a long time since there was a game in which the Browns looked like a favorite. But when a 3-2 team faces an 0-6 team, that's the appearance. What's the Jaguars' attitude toward this game, and is there any advantage to them playing at home?
DiRocco: The Jaguars are as optimistic as they have been all season because they’ve been close the past two weeks against Pittsburgh and Tennessee. It was late mistakes that cost them in each game, and the players know they could have won both games had they played marginally better. A lot of the players on this team were on last year’s team that beat the Browns in Cleveland on a late touchdown pass, and this year’s Browns are without Mack and receiver Josh Gordon. I don’t see the Jaguars having any kind of advantage playing at EverBank Field. The weather has cooled a bit so the heat won’t be a factor for the Browns.
The Cleveland defense is among the NFL’s worst when it comes to total yards and rushing yards, but it has been among the league’s best in the red zone. Why are Browns so good inside the 20 but struggling everywhere else?
McManamon: Good question, and I’m not sure I or the team can answer. Perhaps there’s a greater sense of urgency, perhaps the field shrinks for the opposition and perhaps it’s that the coaches call better plays. But it is hugely important, because coach Mike Pettine believes the most important statistic for a defense after wins is points allowed. The defense swung the momentum in the win over Pittsburgh by twice holding the Steelers to field goal attempts after two good drives. Pittsburgh made the first kick, but a botched hold on the second changed the feel of the game, and the Browns took advantage. Whatever the reason for the red zone success, the Browns just hope it continues.
How close do you think the Jaguars are to winning consistently?
DiRocco: Now that they appear to have found their quarterback, that timetable is accelerated a bit, but the Jaguars are still two years away from being a team that can compete for a playoff spot. While Bortles might be able to make up for some deficiencies in the roster, the Jaguars are still the least talented team in the league. After addressing the offense heavily in the draft this offseason, I expect them to attack the defense next offseason. If they draft well, add some key free agents and Bortles continues to develop, then this could be a six- or seven-win team in 2014 and challenge Indianapolis in the division in 2016.