Every Game’S A Must-Win For The Browns, Until It’S Not

The Dolphins passing trio of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill is the most lethal in the NFL through the first half of the 2022 season.

The Dolphins passing trio of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill is the most lethal in the NFL through the first half of the 2022 season.

Every game’s a must-win for the Browns, until it’s not

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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.


Four downs on Browns (3-5) v. Miami Dolphins (6-3)

First down: Don’t stop if you’ve heard this before.

It’s way too early to be labeling games “must-wins” but blame the Browns for that. If the playoffs – er, the AFC North title -- is the objective, any AFC game for the Browns is “must-win” because of previous losses to AFC wild-card hopefuls such as the Jets, Chargers and Patriots and to the division-leading Ravens. Mathematically, there is a path for the Browns to reach their objective, but now they need help from opponents to beat the Ravens. In the meantime, all the Browns can to do is win at least two of Jacoby Brissett’s final three starts and hope that Deshaun Watson can sweep his three games against AFC North rivals, and then some. Baltimore’s recent surge to 6-3 and its weak schedule probably means a 9-8 record won’t win the AFC North. But 10-7 is a possibility, which requires a 7-2 post-bye finish by the Browns. If Brissett can go 2-1, starting Sunday against the Dolphins in Hard Rock Stadium, that would require Watson to go 5-1 in his six games after reinstatement from NFL suspension. This week, Jadeveon Clowney, Watson’s former Houston teammate and one of his biggest proponents in the locker room, said, “It’s going to be exciting to see when he gets back. I’m just ready for it. See how it goes. We need to be in a good situation when he gets back. So that’s what we’re fighting for right now.” It is what it is.

Second down: Let’s get serious.

Joe Woods’ defense has taken its lumps, for sure, with pathetic performances against Jets has-been quarterback Joe Flacco, Patriots wannabe quarterback Bailey Zappe and two Atlanta running backs nobody’s ever heard of. Such a shame. If Woods’ defense would carry over its stout, physical play against division rivals Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati to other opponents, they wouldn’t be in this dire situation. Anyhow, the patsies are over for now. Next three opposing quarterbacks are Steve Young-impersonator Tua Tagovailoa, John Elway-clone Josh Allen and the GOAT, Tom Brady. If Woods’ defense gets through that gauntlet with winning performances, Woods will retire the trophy of “greatest comeback ever by a defensive coordinator.” It starts Sunday with Tua, whose quick mind and quicker release, and amazingly accurate left arm has surged him to first among NFL quarterbacks in average gain per attempt (9.17 yards), second in completion percentage (69.9), second in touchdown-to-intercpetion ratio (15 to 3), and first in passer rating (115.9). Oh, and he is 6-0 in games he has started and completed this season. None of the fabricated ratings metrics configured by analytics Websites – Pythagorean triangulation, anybody? – matter. Tagovailoa has vaulted past Justin Herbert and a notch behind Joe Burrow among the fabulous Quarterback Class of 2020.

Third down: Cheetah hunting.

Receiver Tyreek Hill was in a class by himself before he was traded to the Dolphins. Now, Hill has taken his game to another level largely because of Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel’s offensive system. In two games against the Browns with Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs, Hill tore up the Browns’ legitimately good secondary for 19 receptions on 25 targets, for 307 yards and one touchdown. In his first season with the Dolphins, Hill is running away with the receptions (76) and receiving yards (1,104) lead. He has only three receiving touchdowns, but there’s no doubt his presence has helped No. 2 receiver Jaylen Waddle match his rookie output already with six touchdowns. Hill had 190 yards receiving against the Ravens, 160 against the Bengals, 177 against the Vikings, 188 against the Lions, and 143 against the Bears. OK, the Ravens (28th), Vikings (27th) and Lions (29th) suck in pass defense. The Bears are 10th and the Bengals are 13th. The Browns are 15th. Only the Patriots, Bills, Jets and Steelers have held Hill under 100 yards. “He has world class speed, can make plays down the field tracking the football and can get the ball in his hands early and let him go,” coach Kevin Stefanski said of the Dolphins’ offensive system. “We have played him a couple of times in Kansas City, so you know that speed. It is real. Just the way they use him with motion, it is almost like Canadian football where he has a full running start at the snap. He gets into your defensive secondary very quickly. The quarterback does a nice job of getting him the ball in areas that he can catch, pluck and go.” Woods said, “He can go from Point A to B right now when he puts his foot in the ground. He is a vertical threat, but he is also an underneath threat. They do things in terms of handing him the ball, and he is in the backfield. They know how to use him for sure as a weapon. There are different guys based on what we call they are going to have to try and defend him.”

Fourth down: Can Stefanski pull the right strings?

This game comes down to game management. Will Stefanski rely on his stellar offensive line and backfield to control the game with time-consuming possessions, or will he be drawn into a shootout with McDaniel’s high-powered offense? Former Browns running back Leroy Hoard now co-hosts a sport talk show in south Florida. When he watches the Browns, he echoes the ire of their fans. “I watch every Browns game and the only time I get mad is when they don’t run,” Hoard said on
#100YearsPod. “That’s how impressed I am with it. Usually we say there’s an eight-man box, [so]  you have to throw it some time. But not with this team. If I had a choice of throwing a pass or have Nick Chubb face a free runner, I think I might go with Nick Chubb. They’ve tried everything to stop the run throughout the course of the year. Guess what? The only times the Browns have really lost a game is when they’ve abandoned the run.” Hoard’s formula for a Browns win against Miami is familiar to every Browns fan. “Sometimes as a young coach, you need to show a little more patience,” Hoard said. “And if you watch a Browns game, they sometimes get into a rut where they feel they have to make these cataclysmic changes with an offense that’s not that complicated. Play keepaway. I’m not asking you play keepaway with a scrub team. I’m asking you to play keepaway with one of the best running backs in the league. This game will show strength v. strength. If they just play to their strengths … If you run the ball 35 times and they stop the run, you can deal with that. But when you don’t put your best on the field, I think that’s what’s frustrating to everybody.” Amen, brother.

The pick: Browns 33, Dolphins 29.

My record: 3-5.