If someone had told you before the season started that the Denver Broncos would be undefeated in their first five games with an offense that ranks 30th in the NFL, and that Peyton Manning would have more interceptions than touchdown passes in that time, you would have probably thought that they were off of their meds. Well, it has come to fruition, all of the above is true, and the Broncos sit at a perfect 5-0. Granted, they have yet to face the best competition that the NFL has to offer, but it still seems unfathomable to think that a team whose success has been predominately linked to its offense, would be undefeated thanks to the stellar play of its defense. In Week 6, the unscathed "bizarro" Broncos will travel to Cleveland to take on the 2-3 Browns.
The Cleveland Browns have been the antithesis of the Broncos so far this season. While the Browns' typically horrid offense has been clicking on all cylinders, thanks to the hot arm of Josh McCown, the Cleveland defense, which has been the team's strength in recent years, has failed to meet expectations. In spite of monster performances by McCown in the last three weeks, Cleveland only managed to win one of those three games, while limping to a 2-3 overall record. The Browns do carry some momentum into Week 6 after beating Baltimore in come-from-behind fashion on the road, but McCown and company still have a tough row to hoe against an elite Broncos defense.
This will be the 28th meeting all time between the Broncos and the Browns dating back to 1970. Denver has dominated the series with an overall record of 22-5 against Cleveland. The Broncos have won 10 consecutive games in the series, making it 25 long years since the Browns last celebrated a victory against the Broncos. The two teams last met in 2012 resulting in a 34-12 Denver win.
Denver at Cleveland
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Denver -4
Three Things to Watch
1. A Struggling Peyton Manning vs. A Beaten-Up Browns Defense
There is no arguing that Peyton Manning has struggled so far in 2015. Whether it be due to a lack of arm strength, poor blocking from the offensive line, lack of a complementary run game, trying to find his way in a new-look Broncos offense, Manning’s overall uncharacteristically poor decision-making so far this season, and so on and so forth. Everyone seems to have a theory, but the bottom line is that something is obviously amiss with the legendary signal-caller. Most likely a combination of all of the above. The good news is that the Browns’ defense should provide Manning with everything he needs to get on track, for one week at least.
While the Browns rank mid-pack in the NFL in passing yards allowed, giving up just over 250 yards per game, they rank a lousy 28th in yards allowed per pass attempt. Cleveland also has allowed 10 touchdowns through the air, while securing just one interception through five games. This is particularly difficult to understand considering this is the same defense that allowed just 22 passing touchdowns all of 2014, while ranking second in the NFL with 21 picks.
Adding injury to insult, an already sad Browns defense has been hit hard by the injury bug of late. Cleveland could be without as many as five of its regular defensive starters for Week 6, including ILB Karlos Dansby, who is nursing a foot injury, and top-flight cornerback, Joe Haden, who is recovering from a concussion. The Cleveland defense may not be able to make Manning look like the elite Manning of old, but the opportunity for success is there for the taking. At the very least, it is safe to say that Brock Osweiler will continue to roam the Denver sideline with clipboard in hand.
2. A Red-Hot Josh McCown vs. An Elite Broncos Defense
There may not be a hotter quarterback in the NFL right now than Josh McCown. Over the last three weeks, McCown has completed 68 percent of his passes, averaged 385 passing yards per game, thrown six touchdown passes and tossed just one interception. In the process, he has helped make run-of-the-mill receiving options such as TE Gary Barnidge and WR Travis Benjamin look like superstars.
Unfortunately, McCown is likely to run into a buzz saw in Week 6 in the form of a Denver defense that has been on fire all season. The Broncos are giving up just 192 passing yards per game. They have allowed just three passing touchdowns on the season, the fewest in the NFL. And Denver’s seven interceptions ranks fourth best. In addition, the Broncos have accumulated a league-best 22 sacks. All of this does not bode well for McCown, who is playing behind an offensive line that has already allowed 18 sacks.
McCown has been playing lights out so far in 2015, but he has yet to face a defense of this magnitude. Like Cleveland, Denver also could be without a couple of its top defensive stars this week. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware is battling a back injury, while lockdown corner Aqib Talib is nursing a bad ankle. McCown obviously stands a better chance of success if those guys are unable to play, but he will still be hard-pressed to continue his hot streak in Week 6.
3. C.J. Anderson Breaks Out?
Everyone expected C.J. Anderson to pick up where he left off in 2014 and rank amongst the NFL’s top running backs this season. So far, Anderson ranks among the worst running backs. He is averaging a dismal 2.6 yards per carry and has yet to find the end zone through five games. As the weeks roll by, each game is expected to be the one that Anderson finally finds his mojo, and each week he fails to deliver. Why is Week 6 going to be any different?
There are obviously no guarantees with Anderson, but if he is unable to find traction against a beat-up Cleveland defense Sunday afternoon, he isn’t likely to fare well against anyone for the rest of the season. The Browns rank second to last in the NFL against the run, giving up a whopping 149 yards per contest. This, in addition to surrendering six rushing touchdowns in five games.
Anderson should also benefit from the Broncos’ passing game, which by all estimations, should also find success against this Browns defense. In addition, Ronnie Hillman may be out, or limited at best, with a hamstring injury, leaving only Juwan Thompson to share the load. This figures to be a timeshare situation that heavily favors Anderson as the primary back. At a minimum, Sunday provides Anderson with his best shot to make something happen.
This matchup actually bodes very well for the Denver Broncos to remain undefeated. The Broncos’ struggles on offense so far this season have been well documented. But they should be far less glaring in against a terrible Cleveland defense that has struggled even more than the Denver offense at this point in the season. In fact, Peyton Manning and the Denver offense stand a reasonable chance of actually looking impressive this week.
On the flip side, the Broncos’ defense might be in for their biggest challenge so far this season trying to contain the hot hand of Cleveland quarterback Josh McCown, especially if they are without sack master DeMarcus Ware and top cornerback Aqib Talib. McCown has been torching opposing defenses for the last three weeks. That being said, a top-shelf Denver defense, even without Ware and Talib, also will present McCown with his biggest challenge to date. A challenge that McCown, and his unheralded cast of overachieving receiving options, is unlikely to overcome. Poor offensive line play and a defense that has shown no ability to slow down opposing offenses will likely lead to Cleveland’s demise at home Sunday afternoon.
Prediction: Broncos 30, Browns 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.