The Cleveland Browns will head west to take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday. A trip that should conjure up one of the fondest memories of the Hue Jackson era for the Browns — last season’s 20-17 victory over the Chargers on Christmas Eve. In fact, it may be the only fond memory, serving as Cleveland’s only win in 27 games under Jackson. That win also saved the Browns from the humiliation of joining the 2008 Lions as the only other team in NFL history to go 0-16 in a season.
Sunday’s matchup looms equally large for an 0-11 Cleveland team that is once again staring down the possibility of a winless season. The fact that the Chargers will be the team on the other sideline may bring optimism to the Cleveland locker room. But this isn’t the same injury-plagued Chargers' team that limped into Cleveland to save the Browns from the worst fate possible a season ago. This Chargers' team doesn’t even reside in the same city or have the same head coach for that matter. They are, however, a team that no one wants to face right now, despite a 5-6 record that might suggest otherwise.
Following back-to-back blowout wins over the Bills and Cowboys, the red-hot Chargers are riding a wave of momentum as big as any team in the league. After starting the season 0-4, they now sit just one game out of first place behind the floundering Chiefs in the AFC West. In order to keep the momentum going, they will have to avoid the embarrassment that would come with falling victim to the winless Browns for a second year in a row. The Chargers are 15-9-1 all-time against the Browns.
Cleveland at Los Angeles Chargers
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 3 at 4:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Chargers -14
Three Things to Watch
1. The return of Josh Gordon
The most prominent storyline heading into Sunday’s game is the long-anticipated return of the Browns’ wide receiver. Not only will Gordon (above, right) return after sitting out the entire 2015 and '16 seasons due to repeated suspensions and substance abuse issues, Gordon will make his regular season debut in a starting role on Sunday.
In his last semi-full season of football with the Browns in 2013, Gordon led the NFL with 1,643 receiving yards in just 14 games. He also did something that season that no other receiver in NFL history has ever done, post back-to-back 200-yard outings (237 yards vs. the Steelers followed by 261 yards vs. the Jaguars). The scary part is, according to his own admissions, he probably wasn’t even sober when he did it.
He will be a welcome addition for rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer and a struggling Browns’ passing attack. And at age 26, Gordon is still young enough to bounce back from his troubled past. He may not be the elite player that we remember right out of the gate. At a minimum there will be some rust to knock off as he works his way back to game form. Nevertheless, Gordon has a natural gift and I wouldn’t be surprised if he flashes a couple of reminders of his greatness on Sunday against the Chargers. I think most fans will be happy if he can just maintain his sobriety and become a positive addition to the team.
2. The Chargers’ passing game vs. the Browns’ pass defense
One of the biggest reasons for the Chargers’ recent success is their red-hot passing attack. That starts up front with an offensive line that has allowed just 12 sacks all season, the fewest of any team in the NFL. Of course, it doesn’t hurt having a veteran quarterback like Philip Rivers under center. Rivers was dominant in last week’s 28-6 Thanksgiving Day win over the Cowboys, completing 82 percent of his passes for 434 yards and three touchdowns, earning AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors in the process. Wide receiver Keenan Allen (right) has played a prominent role in the Chargers' success recently, racking up 23 receptions for 331 yards and three scores in his last two games alone.
While Rivers and company should be able to keep the momentum going in Week 13, the Browns may put up a better fight than you might expect. The Browns haven’t allowed a 300-yard passing performance by a quarterback all season, and they have faced some top-shelf signal-callers. Cleveland also ranks a respectable 13th overall in the league against the pass, giving up 220.8 yards per game. That said, the Browns have been vulnerable against the pass in the red zone. They also have allowed the third-most TD passes in the NFL (22) and have just six interceptions in 11 games.
3. Turnovers and sacks
The Browns' saving grace in last season’s win against the Chargers was that they didn’t turn the ball over, not even once. That might be a much taller order this time around against an opportunistic defense that is plus-12 in turnover margin over its last five games. Meanwhile, no team in the NFL has committed more turnovers this season than the Browns (28).
One area in which Cleveland struggled in last season’s matchup was pass protection, surrendering nine sacks. That could be an even bigger concern this time around. The Browns have allowed the third-most sacks (36) in the NFL, have a rookie quarterback under center, and no Joe Thomas at left tackle.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles is tied for fourth with 32 sacks, led by standout pass rushers Joey Bosa (10.5)and Melvin Ingram (8.5). This duo combined for three sacks last year against the Browns and could be in line for similar, if not more, damage on Sunday.
Cleveland may glean some confidence just in the fact that the Chargers are the only team that the Browns have beaten in the last two seasons. I also kind of like their chances to get something going on the ground this week with Isaiah Crowell against a run defense that ranks last in the NFL (133.5 rushing ypg). The return of Josh Gordon may provide a little spark for a sputtering passing game as well.
But that still won’t be nearly enough to get past a much-improved Chargers team that is on a roll, especially on the road. The only thing more embarrassing than being winless deep into the season is losing to a winless team deep into the season. A lesson the Chargers learned the hard way in 2016, and one that I’m certain they don’t wish to repeat.
Prediction: Chargers 34, Browns 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.