Common sense tells you that nobody wants to lose to somebody who never wins, but it’d be foolish to think that the previously hapless Cleveland Browns will be pushovers for the Jets on Thursday night.
Although the Factory of Sadness has yet to celebrate a victory since Christmas Eve 2016, these new-look Browns are actually pretty damn formidable despite their 0-1-1 start. Hue Jackson’s team, frankly, could – and should – be undefeated if not for some self-inflicted daggers against two projected Super Bowl contenders.
“They’re a different team,” wide receiver Quincy Enunwa told the Daily News. “This year you got new players, you got new talent, you got new leaders. They’re definitely not the ‘Same Old Browns’ just like we don’t want to be the ‘Same Old Jets.’
There’s a reason why Vegas oddsmakers have made the Browns favorites despite a 19-game drought that has them on the brink of the bad kind of history. Cleveland is hoping to avoid becoming only the fourth team in history to have a 20-plus game winless streak. The 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, losers of their first 26 games as a franchise, are the last team to accomplish this unenviable feat.
I suppose the Jets, playing their third game in 11 days to kick off the season, could be insulted at the notion of being underdogs to a team in the midst of an 0-18-1 funk, but it would be wasted energy. Anyone who has paid attention is fully aware that the Browns have ample talent to beat the Jets.
“I don’t think this Cleveland team is anything like what they were before,” wide receiver Jermaine Kearse told the News. “I actually think they’re a lot better. I don’t think anyone should think that they’re the same Cleveland Browns. I don’t think so. They got a very talented team. And it’s the NFL. A team can play great that one time out of the week. You got to bring your s— every week.”
Jackson, an unfathomable 1-32-1 the past two-plus seasons, has every right to think that “we’re closer now than we’ve ever been” to a breakthrough. His club is sprinkled with playmakers on both sides. Cleveland’s defense, led by game-wrecking pass rusher Myles Garrett, already has eight takeaways in Gregg Williams’ ultra-aggressive and unorthodox scheme. Don’t sleep on second-year defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who has been a menace in the first two games (3 sacks) too.
The Browns offense underwent an extreme makeover with a new quarterback, two new receivers, two new running backs and some new offensive linemen. Unfortunately for them, they were done in by a kicker who missed two extra points and two field goals in a soul-crushing road loss to the Saints last weekend. (That kicker, Zane Gonzalez, by the way, is no longer employed by the Browns).
This group is barely recognizable from a year ago. It doesn’t take a wily veteran to recognize that this team has some quality pieces that can hurt you.
“Every team in the NFL,” rookie Sam Darnold said, “is dangerous.”
The Jets obviously are aware of Cleveland’s bleak past, but they couldn’t care less. They’re just hoping to rid themselves of their home-opening loss to the Dolphins a few days ago.
For all the newness in Cleveland, the Jets are fully aware of what their triggerman Tyrod Taylor is capable of on gamedays. The mobile former Bills quarterback gouged Gang Green in a season-opening loss last season with back-breaking timely scrambles. The 6-1 Taylor, who will be the bridge to top overall pick Baker Mayfield, might have clear limitations seeing the short-intermediate middle of the field on drop backs, but he can torch you in other ways.
“It’s a big challenge, because he runs faster than most of the quarterbacks we face,” Todd Bowles said. “All of them can scramble, but he’s an elite runner and he’s very accurate on the deep ball. He’s one of the best dual threats in the league. Some of them can throw, some of them can run, (some of them) can throw on the run and be good in the pocket. He can hurt you with his legs and he can hurt you with his deep balls. And because of his intelligence he doesn’t turn the ball over. So, it’s going to be tough.”
Taylor has been uneven through the first two weeks. He completed a dreadful 37.5 percent of his passes (15 for 40), but scrambled for 77 yards and a touchdown in a season-opening tie to the Steelers. He played better from the pocket in Week 2, but threw a costly fourth-quarter interception that helped cough up the lead.
It’ll be incumbent upon Bowles’ defense to corral Taylor, who’s already been sacked 10 times. Taylor is a skilled nuisance who can make you play if defenders get out of their rush lanes. The math isn’t overly complicated: There are six potential rush lanes. If the Jets bring four pass rushers, they’ll have to be sound in their gaps. Being overaggressive could prove costly. Taylor wasn’t nicknamed T-Mobile by accident. He can beat you around the edge or step up and dart through the middle if there’s an opening.
The Browns technically have the fourth-ranked rushing offense through two games, but primary ball carrier Carlos Hyde is averaging 2.8 yards per carry.
“Their run is something we’re going to have to stop early on so the play-action pass and things like that aren’t in play,” Williams said. “That’s what makes them really good sometimes. They can get a few good running plays in and drive down on the field on runs. Then, the play action really works because people are biting down on the run game. And it leaves the (defensive backs) in a bind. Guys up front are going to put it on our back to stop the run as soon as possible.”
Condensed preparation time coupled with traveling won’t be easy to overcome for the Jets. Sprinkle in that their rookie quarterback is preparing for his third career start in 11 days and this will be a daunting challenge despite the perception.
The Browns might have been the laughing stock of the league the past two seasons, but the Jets aren’t getting a free lunch.
“When we step on the field Thursday, no one cares about your previous records,” outside linebacker Brandon Copeland said. “That person in front of you is trying to embarrass you.”