Long the laughingstock of the NFL (even more so than the Redskins) the Browns have just one playoff appearance since returning to the league in 1999. It's tempting to overlook them and consider this game an easy victory, but even if RGIII is 100%, I still have an uneasy feeling about this game. I decided to take a closer look at the numbers, at the strengths and weaknesses, to see if the feeling is legitimate or if I've just been burned too many times.
The Browns are 5-8. While still mathematically alive for playoff contention, they would need to win out and have Pittsburgh and Cincinnati implode, as well as some other teams lose. But they have been playing better of late. They started out 0-5, losing close games against Philadelphia and Cincinnati, before turning things around. They let road games against Indianapolis and Dallas slip through their fingers (in the case of the Colts game, literally) or they would be in the thick of the playoff hunt. They have won three in a row for the first time since they won their last four games in 2009.
The strength of the Browns is the defense, although by most statistical standards, they aren't remarkable. They are 23rd in total defense, but 9th in scoring defense. They are 5th in forcing turnovers, which explains this anomaly, and the fact that their offense is 26th probably puts a strain on their defense as well. Brandon Weeden has had good games and bad games, and has thrown 13 TDs and 15 INTs. Teams game plan to stop Trent Richardson, who is averaging 3.5 yards per carry, but is one of the better young backs in the league. Josh Gordon is a legitimate deep threat, but has dropped some key passes, including what should have been the game winner in Indianapolis. Tight End Benjamin Watson has developed into a key part of the offense, which is a concern as the Redskins struggle to defend the TE.
This game is a matchup of strength against strength, weakness against weakness. The Browns have only once gone an entire game without forcing a turnover (a week 9 loss to the Ravens.) The Redskins have gone five games without a single turnover, and have the 2nd fewest giveaways in the league. The Redskins defense is 28th in the league (passing 31st and rushing 7th) while the Browns offense is 26th (passing 20th and rushing 24th). Safe to say, though, the main reason why the Browns have struggled to run the ball is that opponents do not respect their ability to pass. The Redskins cannot afford to disrespect anyone's passing game. They have to defend the pass well, or Weeden will have a career day. On the other side of the ball, the Redskins bring the top ranked rushing offense and 21st ranked passing offense against a 21st ranked passing defense and a 18th ranked run defense. If RGIII plays, it certainly seems the Redskins have the advantage.
Key for the Redskins will be protecting the passer, since either a hobbled RGIII or Kirk Cousins (who throws a beautiful pass, given enough time) will be under center. The Browns have accumulated 34 sacks this year, tied with Arizona for 7th in the league. Of the six teams with more sacks, the Redskins have played two (Cincinnati and St. Louis) and I don't need to tell anyone how those games turned out (even though those two teams combined for only three sacks, the pressure was still considerable). The Redskins have to keep rushers off of whoever is under center. They have to force the Browns to bring extra people to get pressure. If the Browns can get pressure with three or four, there is no way the Redskins offense can function.
Despite that, I came away with more hope than I had going in. The Browns struggled early in the year against the run, but in their winning streak, teams have not run the ball. In their 8 losses, teams ran the ball an average of 30.625 times per game. The team that ran the ball least was Dallas, of course, with only 21 rushing attempts in a game that went fairly deep into overtime. Some of this has to do with defending a lead, thus running the ball more, but many of these games were close, such as the Eagles loss and the Colts loss. In games the Browns have won, teams have attempted an average of 23.4 rushes per game, with a high of 26 coming in the Chiefs game last week. The one thing the Redskins are almost certain to be able to do well, whoever is at quarterback, is run the ball. I predict a heavy dose of Alfred the Butler, and whether Batman or Robin is the quarterback, a Redskins' victory.