Two upstart teams will meet on the shore of Lake Erie Sunday afternoon with playoff implications in the air. The Cleveland Browns have won three straight games, and five of eight, while the Washington Redskins are on a four-game winning streak and right in the middle of the NFC playoff chase. The biggest story in the NFL this week was the injury to Robert Griffin III, and whether or not the dynamic rookie quarterback would be available for the crucial Week 15 game.
At a team meeting on Saturday night, the Redskins made it official and told the players that Kirk Cousins would get the start. While RG3's knee injury improved throughout the week and he was able to practice in limited fashion, it was Cousins who reportedly took all the first team reps. Cousins has appeared in two games this season, but thrown only 11 passes in extremely limited action. On Sunday, with the Redskins trying to pull even in the NFC East with the Giants, he'll get his first career start in the NFL.
Meet the Browns
After an 0-5 start, the young Browns have improved dramatically and a three-game winning streak even has some fans entertaining longshot playoff scenarios (they're not mathematically eliminated). With the Steelers and Bengals stumbling in Week 14, the Browns are technically still alive in the AFC. But at 5-8, the final three weeks will mostly be a measuring stick for this young team's growth over the 2012 season.
Cleveland has had 72 rookie starts this season, with first-year players all over the field on the both sides of the ball. Tampa Bay has the second highest total of rookie starts, well behind at 44. Pat Shurmur's team has steadily improved with rookies starting at quarterback, running back, and receiver. Brandon Weeden is certainly not RGIII when it comes to his ability to impact a game, but he's been adequate, and better than anything Cleveland fans have seen in some time. Weeden has set a number of rookie franchise passing marks, but he has been prone to throwing costly interceptions. The Redskins secondary is the most glaring weakness on their team, so Weeden will have his opportunities to take shots down the field.
The biggest deep threat outside the numbers is fellow rookie Josh Gordon, a supplemental draft pick. Gordon played with RGIII at Baylor, and the Skins quarterback reportedly lobbied Mike Shanahan to draft him. Instead, Gordon wound up in Cleveland where he's had an immediate impact in his first season. His touchdowns have almost exclusively been of the "home run" variety. If the Browns take advantage of the Skins secondary, expect Gordon to be the biggest beneficiary. Greg Little has also emerged as a solid pass-catching option.
In the backfield, Cleveland has developed an nice rotation with Trent Richardson and Montario Hardesty. It's certainly Richardson's job, and he'll get the bulk of the carries, but Hardesty has provided a critical change of pace and boost off the bench. Richardson was ill on Friday and a late add to the injury report this weekend. He'll almost certainly play, but Hardesty could get more reps this week against a Redskins rush defense that's yielding less than 100 yards per game and among the best in the league.
The Browns defense has been most responsible for the second-half improvements. The defensive line got healthy, with both Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor anchoring the inside. D'Qwell Jackson, a Maryland alum, is one of the best linebackers in the NFL and the leader of the defense. But Taylor and Rubin lead a front seven that's getting to the quarterback, forcing fumbles, and stuffing the run. The defensive backfield has been vulnerable throughout the season, and that's been the biggest weakness of this Browns team. The corner playing opposite Joe Haden, a DC-area native, is usually picked on throughout the game. Sheldon Brown has held his own recently, and facing Cousins instead of Griffin could be a welcome sight for this secondary.
Meet the Redskins
It's obviously hard to know what Cousins will bring to the Redskins offense, but they do lose plenty of explosiveness out of the backfield with RGIII not starting. Cousins, in both college and throughout the draft process, was repeatedly hailed by pundits for his leadership abilities and cerebral approach to football. We'll see what those kinds of qualities produce in his first career start against a defense that's been getting consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and also forcing turnovers at a high rate.
Cousins threw two interceptions in a brief appearance against the Falcons, but also finished off that thrilling comeback win over the Ravens in Week 14. He was a decorated quarterback coming out of Michigan State, and the Browns have their weak spots in the defensive backfield. While Kyle and Mike Shanahan probably won't run much zone read option, it's unlikely they tighten up and go very conservative with Cousins in place of RGIII. Pierre Garcon's return paid instant dividends for their passing game, and he'll be targeted repeatedly on Sunday.
Supporting Cousins will be the NFL's best rushing attack, averaging 168.1 yards per game. A big part of that is RGIII, but it's also fellow rookie Alfred Morris. The sixth round pick has been outstanding in his first season, bursting through holes and getting to the second level quickly. Morris has had some fumbling problems over the past month, but he's also broken 100 yards in three straight games. A childhood friend of Richardson's, expect both rookie rushers to get the ball early and often.
The Redskins defense has been a consistent target of criticism while the RGIII show has taken over on the other side of the ball. But the defense has stepped up in the second half for the past two weeks, aiding that four-game win streak. The secondary is particularly woeful, giving up several big plays in the air throughout the season. At 289.3 yards per game, it's the second worst pass defense in the league. Weeden has put up some big numbers in a few games this year, but he'll also force it all over the field. Washington will have their chances to pick off a couple, and takeaways are the most direct way to pick up a win on the road without your starting quarterback.
Local Takes: Browns
Chris Pokorny of Dawgs by Nature analyzes the Redskins' threats through the air, specifically Garcon, and how the Browns might match up:
The Browns were interested in Pierre Garcon, and thankfully, the Redskins ended up overpaying for him so we didn't have to. To Garcon's credit, he has come up big during the Redskins' four-game winning streak, which is about the same time he finally got over his foot injury. Over the past three games, Garcon has 26 receptions for 275 yards and 3 touchdowns. Garcon hasn't really been a slot receiver, so it should be expected that Joe Haden will have the responsibility of shadowing him. This will be the biggest threat Haden has faced in weeks, and he'll have to make sure he's prepared to match Garcon's speed whenever Washington goes for the long ball. After Garcon, the Redskins regularly rotate between Josh Morgan, Leonard Hankerson, and Santana Moss at receiver.
Local takes: Redskins
With three weeks to go, Redskins fans will be doing some scoreboard watching Sunday afternoon. Parks Smith of Hogs Haven breaks down the different games to keep an eye on:
At 8-5, the Giants hold a one-game lead over the Redskins in the division. The Bears and the Seahawks also stand at 8-5, taking up the two Wild Card spots, with Washington, Dallas and Minnesota all tied at 7-6. The Redskins currently stand on top of the three-way tie between those teams. If the Cowboys and Giants both lose, and the Redskins beat the Browns, then the Redskins will be first in the NFC East.
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Will RGIII play? Vegas has no idea, taking the line off the boards. After seeing Kirk Cousins briefly last week, the drop-off from No. 1 to No. 2 in Washington maybe isn't as big as we once thought. I screwed Cleveland in this week's power rankings -- sorry, Browns fans -- but this is a different team than your usual Browns teams. Dating back to October, they've been extremely competitive. This will be a good game.
The pick: 24-21, Redskins
The uncertainty at quarterback kept this game off the board for much of the week. When it opened, the Redskins were slight one-point favorites although that quickly moved to a pick 'em. Check out OddsShark for the up-to-the-minute line at multiple books.
The Browns will end their season with two road games, and they start next week at Mile High against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. The Redskins will finish their road slate in Philadelphia against the last-place Eagles.