Five things, areas and players to watch when the Cleveland Browns (3-2) play the Jacksonville Jaguars (0-6) Sunday…
1. The Browns are favored, the Browns are confident and though this is uncharted territory, the Browns seem equipped keep winning and keep this thing rolling. The Browns will miss Alex Mack, immediately and into the future, and the defense is still finding its way and fighting a few key injuries. But the Browns are scoring 27 points per game, they’re getting sufficient balance and good quarterbck play, and they are developing a little confidence. Six and two, which the Browns could be, remains three games away. It seems like a real thing.
2. The numbers say the Jaguars are really bad; the eye test agrees with the numbers. But a wounded, winless animal in the NFL is a dangerous one — especially at home, especially because the Browns have only played four good quarters out of eight on the road so far, especially because Blake Bortles is getting a little more comfortable each week as the Jaguars quarterback of the present and future. The Jaguars will get after Hoyer — assuming they can stop the run — and they will challenge the Browns secondary. They probably aren’t good enough to be up four scores on the Browns like the Steelers and Titans were as home teams, but we’ll see. The Jaguars defense seems to be coming around — it started at the bottom, as the kids say — and there are reasons to think the Browns are walking into a trap.
3. It’s about the quarterbacks. Both quarterbacks. Hoyer is red hot, is making himself a lot of money and is becoming one of the NFL’s best stories. Bortles is finding his way, harnessing his talents and taking his lumps, too. The offensive line and a receiving corps that’s overachieved by any measure have helped Hoyer, but getting Jordan Cameron back to full speed and a very impressive play-action game set up by the run game indicate that Hoyer can keep ascending. The Jaguars don’t want Bortles to have to do too much but the fact remains wins will come only when he plays really well. He might see opportunity for a breakout game against the Browns.
4. The Browns are really running the ball and averaging 146 rushing yards per game. The Jaguars don’t run the ball at all but have been decent against the run, giving up 117 rushing yards per game. That’s not a bad number for a winless team. Maybe getting Storm Johnson healthy and caught up can help the Jags running game. The Jags need to keep Hoyer and the Browns off the field — read that again; it’s been a long time — and keep the chains moving. It’s cliche, but the Browns have won in part because they’ve won the turnover battle. Time of possession should matter here, too. The Jaguars come in with the NFL’s worst rush offense, averaging 69.5 yards per game.
5. At winless Jacksonville. Winless Oakland. One-win Tampa Bay. Hoyer and Mike Pettine and the other strong voices in the Browns locker room won’t look past the first play in Jacksonville, but opportunity has arrived. Have the Browns arrived? We won’t find that out over this three-game stretch, but we could see a team that’s just finding itself and continuing to improve. Maybe, just maybe, the Browns will play in some really big games in November and December. This October gift from the scheduling gods could set the stage for those.