Both the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns have crashed down to earth this season after hot starts. The Broncos come into FirstEnergy Stadium losers of three straight after beginning the year 3-0; they haven't even held the lead during a game in over 10 quarters.
The Browns are spiraling downward themselves, losers of two in a row and snake-bit by injuries, especially on offense. Running back Kareem Hunt will be the latest to miss an extended period of time, a calf injury Sunday taking him out of commission for the next 4-6 weeks. Quarterback Baker Mayfield also will miss at least one game, as the team announced on Wednesday morning that backup Case Keenum would get the start against Denver.
Does that give an opening to the Broncos to right the ship? Their once-feared defense has been decidedly average the past three weeks, ballooning from 26 total points allowed in three wins to 28.0 points per game given up in three losses. Perhaps the teams they beat had a little to do with skewing the numbers: The Giants, Jaguars, and Jets are a combined 3-14 this year.
The Browns, meanwhile, can at least point to the quality of their opponents as of late, suffering through a heartbreaking loss to the 4-2 Los Angeles Chargers in the final minute before the undefeated Cardinals stomped them last week. Now 3-3 overall, they're tied for last in the AFC North, a division where every team is .500 or better — just like the Broncos and the AFC West.
It puts each team at a crossroads one-third of the way through the season. The Broncos have won 12 of the last 13 meetings between these teams, but which one will be able to overcome their adversity Thursday night?
Thursday Night Football: Denver (3-3) at Cleveland (3-3)
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 21 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network/Amazon Prime Video
Spread: Browns -3.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Which offensive players will suit up for the Browns?
Mayfield was already playing hurt, as his shoulder issues only worsened over the past few weeks. His non-throwing shoulder has had labrum issues since Week 2 and was dislocated again in the third quarter of Sunday's 37-14 loss to Arizona.
Tuesday, the quarterback admitted it was a full tear, not a partial one, as had been initially reported. But despite being held out of practice earlier this week, Mayfield insisted then that he was going to play.
"Only I know how my body feels," Mayfield said. "And if anyone questions whether I'm hindering the team in going out there injured, that's just not right. So, it's my decision. I get to say whether I'm able to play or not, and that's just how it is."
But with Keenum declared the starter on Wednesday morning, it's obvious that it wasn't just Mayfield's decision. Whether it was the medical staff (there have been reports that Mayfield could need surgery sooner rather than later) or head coach Kevin Stefanski putting their foot down, or a combination, it didn't help Mayfield's case that he suffered through five sacks and an interception in the blowout loss to Arizona on Sunday.
Enter Keenum, a journeyman who's just thrown 13 passes with Cleveland the last two seasons and is 1-7 in his last eight games as a starter. Under normal circumstances, it would be obvious to expect the Browns to focus on the ground game to bail them out. But their top-ranked rushing attack (168.5 ypg) is now down its top two backs with both Hunt and Nick Chubb out with calf injuries. That puts the load on D'Ernest Johnson, who's rushed a grand total of three times for Cleveland in six games. Rookie Demetric Felton may also get a few touches, although he's been used mostly as a dink-and-dunk receiver. The Browns' backfield has become a giant question mark Thursday night.
But the list goes on, as wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is likely to be a game-time decision after injuring his shoulder against the Cardinals. Cleveland's injury report is lengthy and quite a few of the names on there won't suit up for Thursday night's game. The only glimmer of hope is receiver Jarvis Landry, cleared to come off injured reserve after his knee injury.
All the adversity has taken a toll on the offense, scoring 14 points or less in two of the last three games. They'll need more than that in order to beat the Broncos.
2. Can Denver's defense take advantage?
On the other side of the ball, Denver's defense has wavered a bit, allowing more than 400 yards in two of the last three games. They've allowed 23, 27, and 34 points, respectively, while allowing teams to march up and down the field at will.
Based on their early-season dominance, the Broncos' defense still ranks fourth in the NFL. But those totals are deceiving for a team that's struggled to create the type of game-changing plays that were once their hallmark. Denver's created only six turnovers in six games and are allowing third-down conversions at a 42.11 percent clip, pedestrian numbers that rank 19th in the NFL, respectively.
Can it be fixed? It all starts with All-Pro Von Miller, the heart and soul of this unit who's cooled off after 4.5 sacks in the first four games. It doesn't help when four of his fellow linebackers didn't even practice Monday, including his tag-team partner Alexander Johnson. The second-leading tackler on the team is lost for the year after suffering a torn pectoral muscle Sunday against the Raiders.
That's motivated Miller to be more vocal in what he knows is a pivotal moment in the Broncos' season.
"I will play well in this game," Miller said Tuesday. "I'm going to go off. … I'll put the pressure on me. … I'm going to play well, get a couple of sacks and if I do that, then we will win."
Can he follow through? It's interesting that this team, built under a defensive-minded coach, hasn't scored a defensive touchdown off a turnover since December 2019 against Houston.
3. Can Teddy Bridgewater stay healthy and take care of the football?
Bridgewater was outstanding for the Broncos the first three weeks before suffering a concussion in Week 4 against the Ravens. Now, he's suffering through a foot injury, causing some uncertainty about his status for Thursday night (in this case, the head coach is insistent his starting quarterback will be on the field).
Injuries aside, the difference in the Broncos' offense has been turnovers. Six of their eight have been in the last three games, including four by Bridgewater Sunday. A third-quarter fumble when the team started driving led to a Raiders touchdown that put the game out of each.
Bridgewater needs to stay in the game and be more careful, not forcing throws to two young players (wide receiver Courtland Sutton, tight end Noah Fant) that keep developing. Sutton in particular looks great after missing almost all of 2020 due to a knee injury; his 471 yards rank sixth in the AFC. Facing a Browns defense that's allowed eight receiving touchdowns the past two weeks, I'd expect Sutton to get open early and often.
Neither team will have the offensive firepower to put points on the board Thursday night. Expect a sloppy game where special teams and a few key turnovers make all the difference. (Here's a fun one: these teams are a combined 21-for-21 on field goals and 27-for-27 on extra points in a terrible year for kickers around the league.)
With a short week, there's no telling what to expect from Keenum although it's possible the coaching staff had already been preparing for this possibility. Still, it's not like he'll have his best supporting cast to help him succeed. The schedule doesn't get any easier for Cleveland after this one with two games against division rivals on tap (Steelers, Bengals). So a win on Thursday night would go a long way but it won't be easy with all the injuries.
It's been a long road for the Denver offense, too. But there's enough firepower there for Bridgewater to get them over a finish line in a game they need to win to remain above water in the talented AFC West.
Prediction: Broncos 20, Browns 16
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.