Friday, September 5, 2008

Week 1: Browns vs. Cowboys

So after what was seemingly a neverending wait for the start of the NFL season, Week 1 is finally upon us. As Browns fans we have gone from lofty expectations during training camp to a bit of worry over the 0-4 preseason, and more importantly, all the injuries. Such is the nature of things here in Cleveland... we have come to expect freak knee injuries like the one that happened Wednesday that will keep Antwan Peek out for the entire 2008 season. Not that I think Peek is an essential player to the team's success this year, but it's the type of downer that you don't want to start a season on. But injuries or not, the season kicks off with a tough opponent in the Cowboys on Sunday at 4:15. Here are the things I will be watching:

  1. The Cowboys air attack vs. the Browns secondary: Much has been made of the Browns' perceived lack of depth in their secondary after trading Leigh Bodden and losing Daven Holly to injury. Terry Cousin and Travis Daniels were added during camp. But the real pressure will be on Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald at corner and Brodney Pool and Sean Jones at the safety spots. For as much as I dislike Terrell Owens, I won't kid myself and think that we can stop him. We just can't allow him to go off like he did when the Eagles came into town in 2006. And keeping track of Cowboys tight end Jason Witten also scares me a lot. If we start playing back off the line of scrimmage I think they will look to Witten a lot underneath and that could spell trouble.
  2. The Browns defensive line: The off-season additions of Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams gave a lot of us hope that the Browns would not only be able to better defend the run, but also finally get some pressure on the quarterback. This will be imperative in Week 1 against the Cowboys, because if Tony Romo is given time he will find the open receiver and pick the defense apart. And Marion Barber is more than capable enough to break of some big runs if he isn't contained.
  3. The Browns offensive line: This unit has been considered one of the best in the NFL after a stellar 2007 season. Left tackle Joe Thomas is a beast and will only get better as he progresses into his second NFL season. But he will have his hands full with DeMarcus Ware and the rest of the Cowboys defensive line. And the Browns didn't do a great job of protecting Derek Anderson in limited action in the preseason. It will be imperative that they give Anderson time on Sunday, as well as opening up some running lanes for Jamal Lewis.
  4. The Browns receivers vs. the Cowboys secondary: Obviously Braylon Edwards had his breakout season last year. I expect much more of the same this year as he and Anderson really developed good chemistry. And the addition of Donte Stallworth gives the Browns more speed and a reliable second option. And Kellen Winslow is the ultimate pass-catching tight end with the size, speed, and fearlessness that will make and defense afraid. But the Cowboys secondary is very talented (namely Roy Williams) and this may well be the matchup that decides the game. We all know how much better the Browns were last season when Anderson was able to limit his turnovers and didn't force mistakes. It is a must that the Browns don't give the Cowboys extra possessions or a short field to work with.
  5. Special teams: Mainly I'm referring to the Browns special teams here. A huge key for me will be if Josh Cribbs is healthy enough to play. If his ankle isn't an issue and he is on the field he is a game-changer. Syndric Steptoe did a nice job stepping in during the preseason, but he is nowhere near the caliber of Cribbs. If #16 is back there receiving the opening kickoff, I will be breathing much easier. It will also be important for Dave Zastudil and Phil Dawson to step up when called upon. Field position or an extra 3 points could be the difference in this game.

DeMarcus Ware vs. Joe Thomas will be just one of the big matchups on Sunday

Summing everything up I'm just not sure I love this matchup to start the year for our Browns. But I also know that we have become a dominant team at home (7-1 last year, with the one loss featuring Charlie Frye under center). I definitely think this could become a shootout which could also favor the Browns (5-0 under Romeo Crennel when scoring 30 points or more). Ultimately this game will come down to which team can take care of the ball better on offense and get stops on defense. I'm just not sure the Browns can make all the stops they need to in this one.

It's not that I don't think the Browns can't win this game... I wouldn't put anything past them with their explosive offense. And I know the crowd will be a huge factor (I can't wait to be in the middle of 73,000 screaming fans on Sunday). If the Browns do lose, this would be a game to do it (non-conference so it likely wouldn't play a part in playoff tiebreakers). Weighing everything, I'm going with a prediction of... Cowboys 30 Browns 27. But I reserve the right to change my pick if anything changes my mind before Sunday morning...