A 3-3 San Diego Chargers team travels to Cleveland for a Week 8 matchup featuring two coaches on some of the hottest seats in the NFL. While the Chargers enter the game with extra rest from a bye week, they certainly still have a bad taste in their mouth after embarrassingly blowing a 24-point lead to the Broncos on Monday Night Football. The Browns, on the other hand, backed up their first win of the season with a disappointing loss to the Colts, failing to capitalize on fourth-quarter opportunities and matching a franchise record 11-game road losing streak.
This will be the first official Browns game under new owner Jimmy Haslam, with the transaction clearing on Thursday. CEO Joe Banner was supposed to come aboard full-time on Thursday as well, but the death of his father has delayed his joining the team. The new regime will undoubtedly put Pat Shurmur in the crosshairs, as the second-year coach is now 1-6 after some curious conservative decisions against the Colts -- moves that had Haslam visibly perturbed in the owner's box.
The game is crucial to the Chargers, who are still in contention at .500, but it's also an enormous game for Shurmur. The Browns are slight home underdogs, and with San Diego seeming vulnerable after the Denver disaster, a win in Haslam's first home game is almost mandatory if Shurmur wants to entertain thoughts of sticking around for another year. It's likely Cleveland's best shot at a win until December.
Meet the Browns
Cleveland is one of the youngest teams in the NFL, overhauling their roster from the Eric Mangini days and drafting an array of weapons on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback Brandon Weeden is breaking a new franchise rookie record every week it seems, and he's thrown four touchdowns and just one interception in his last two games.
During the stretch of improved play from Weeden, fellow rookie Josh Gordon has emerged as Cleveland's No. 1 threat on the outside. Gordon, a supplemental draft pick this summer, started slow but has burst onto the scene in the past three weeks. He's taking the top off the defense and connected with Weeden on deep touchdowns four times in the past three games. But Gordon dropped a crucial fourth-quarter would-be touchdown that hit him in the hands last week, and he took full blame for the loss after the game. Sunday will provide his first shot at redemption in front of a friendly Dawg Pound thrilled about his recent emergence.
The third key rookie on the offensive side is running back Trent Richardson. The No. 3 pick said this week that he has yet to play a game this season at 100 percent. He's dealing with a rib cartilage injury that severely limited him last week against the Colts, as he carried the ball eight times for eight yards. Shurmur said the back looked much better this week in practice, but the persistent rib injury will likely mean reduced time and shared carries with Montario Hardesty. The Chargers have the second best rush defense in the NFL through seven weeks, which could mean more tough sledding for Richardson.
Despite their 1-6 record, the Browns have been competitive in almost every game, but Shurmur's team has been unable to close things out in the fourth quarter.
Meet the Chargers
The 2012 season started smoothly for the Chargers, but they have now suffered two straight extremely disappointing losses. They have had to watch highlights of the Denver collapse on loop now for two weeks, and quarterback Phillip Rivers will be anxious to face one of the worst pass defenses in the league. Rivers's nine interceptions are one shy of the league lead, and his second half against Denver may have been the low point of his otherwise successful career. He has struggled this season behind an offensive line that's failed to protect him, and the Browns will likely send multiple blitzes at him to try and shake him up early.
If Rivers has time to throw, he'll face a secondary that's been the weakness of the entire Cleveland team. The return of Joe Haden, who may be having his best season, has been a boost but opposing quarterbacks have still been able to target whoever is playing opposite him. Rivers still prefers to hit his old reliable tight end, Antonio Gates, who had six catches for 80-plus yards and two touchdowns against the Broncos. Cleveland's biggest weakness is on the outside, but still expect Rivers to look for Gates down the middle of the field.
On the ground, it will be Ryan Mathews, the third-year back who seems to be healthy after missing the start of the season. Mathews carried the ball a season-high 22 times against Denver, and there's opportunity for production on the ground against the Browns. Cleveland will be without starting defensive tackles Phil Taylor (coming off PUP) and Ahtyba Rubin (ruled out on Friday). That leaves two rookies starting on the interior, and the Colts exposed the Browns on the ground. Mathews could have a big day, particularly if Rivers continues to struggle.
Local Takes: Browns
Chris Pokorny from Dawgs By Nature further discussed the possibility for another slow day for the rookie Richardson:
Reports have indicated that Trent Richardson will play this week, so expecting him to have 100 yards rushing on the ground isn't a likely expectation. If he's healthy, though, the Browns can live with 100 all-purpose yards from Richardson, since San Diego is more susceptible to the passing game. We've yet to see a team give their primary running back over 20 touches in a game against the Chargers this season.
Local Takes: Chargers
John Gennaro of Bolts From The Blue doesn't mince words -- this is a must-win for the Chargers:
This is a do-or-die game. For the players, for the fans, for the coaching staff and maybe the GM. If the Chargers find a way to lose to this 1-5 Browns team on Sunday, they will unquestionably be the biggest embarrassment in the league. Dean Spanos will start tossing people off the boat, in the middle of the ocean, with anchors tied around their necks instead of life vests.
That has to count for something, right? Norv's teams always do seem to play their best under mid-season stress.
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@MaryKayCabot - Browns beat writer
The Chargers may or may not have used Stick 'Em in a Monday night loss to the Broncos on Oct. 15. Whatever chemical company that makes Stick 'Em is adamantly denying that after San Diego coughed up a 24-point lead. The main difference between the Chargers and the Browns is that the Browns are now trying to fix years of hopelessness with a new owner ready to make changes. The Chargers, meanwhile, are content to allow Norv Turner to hover around .500 every season. Brandon Weeden has 495 yards, four touchdowns and a single interception in his last two games. If the 29-year-old rookie (the Browns!) can carry that momentum into this one, the Browns will take it.
The pick: 27-24, Browns
Coming off the bye week, the Chargers are favored by 2.5 points on the road, and that has gone up to a field goal spread in some places.
The Browns will go on bye next week, right at the midpoint of their season. The Chargers will host the Kansas City Chiefs.