A solid formula for an upset in the NFL is for a superior team to allow their inferior opponent to hang around and stay within striking distance early in the game. As the game goes on, the inferior team gains confidence, and the superior team can’t get into a groove and plays down to the level of their opposition.
The most important thing the Eagles need to do on Sunday is get out to an early lead. They need to assert themselves from the opening kickoff, and send the Browns an early message to let them know they won’t be starting their season with a win. The offense must be in a no-nonsense mood, and get out to a quick 14-0 lead in the first quarter. It would completely demoralize Cleveland, and set the stage for an afternoon of smooth sailing.
If the Eagles come out flat, and manage only 10 points in the first half, they’re going to be inviting a disaster. Regardless of their level of talent, any NFL team can become dangerous if they’re playing in a close game that they think they can win. Andy Reid’s teams have been guilty of unacceptable let downs against some of the league’s worst teams, such as the infamous tie in Cincinnati during the 2008 season and the loss to the lowly Oakland Raiders during the 2009 campaign.
It’s a cliche, but in the NFL any team can win on any given Sunday. This element of the game is what makes this league the best in professional sports, and it’s a lesson that arrogant, unprepared teams are forced to relearn from time to time.
How could the Browns beat the Eagles?
For the next few paragraphs, I’m going to try and put myself in the mindset of the most diehard (and delusional) Cleveland Browns fans, and try to rationalize a scenario in which this team can upset the Eagles.
For such an upset to occur, it’s going to have to start with the Cleveland defense. The Browns aren’t all bad on defense. They’ve got a defensive line anchored by defensive tackle Phil Taylor, who led all interior lineman in the league with 83 tackles last season. They have a couple of veteran leaders in playmaking middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and former Eagle Sheldon Brown. They also have some talented young players, like cornerback Joe Haden. Even on their best day, this unit won’t be able to shut the Eagles down, but they could make a difference in the game if they’re able to play a smart and opportunistic brand of football; they need to cover Michael Vick’s receivers well, and force the mistake-prone quarterback into at least a couple of turnovers.
On offense, the Browns will need to set rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden up for success by establishing a solid running game. They’ll have to exploit the Eagles’ Wide-Nine defensive line fronts, and try to gash the defense for large gains with running backs Trent Richardson and Monterio Hardesty. After establishing the run, they can turn to Weeden for some short and intermediate passes. They can try to pick on Nnamdi Asomugha, who has struggled throughout the preseason, or the suspect Philadelphia safeties.
The Browns also have an X-factor in return man Josh Cribbs. Cribbs is one of the most dynamic kick/punt returners in football, and his big-play ability has been responsible for a number of Cleveland victories in the last few seasons. The wide receiver has the potential to make a difference in any game.
It’s also worth noting that the Eagles have had a nasty habit for slow starts under Andy Reid, and the team has come out completely flat and unprepared on several opening days in the Reid era. The Browns could hold out some hope that Philadelphia won’t be ready to go, especially when they consider that the starting quarterback has only taken 12 snaps in the preseason.
Why the Browns won’t beat the Eagles.
And now we’ll step back into reality.
Although I think the Cleveland defense is decent, they just can’t account for all of the Eagles’ offensive talent. Even though quality play from Vick is far from a sure thing in my eyes, I have to believe that this offense should be able to move the ball at will in this game. LeSean McCoy will miss Jason Peters, but he’s still one of the best running backs in football, and the speedy Philadelphia receivers should be able to take advantage of the lack of speed in the Browns’ secondary and routinely get themselves open for big plays.
The Browns are leaning too heavily on unproven players on the offensive side of the ball. Even though Trent Richardson is a great talent, he hasn’t played through most of the preseason, and may need time to jell with his teammates and get a feel for the game at the NFL level before he becomes a serious threat. Brandon Weeden will have a hard enough time establishing himself while dealing with deep and talented Philadelphia pass rush, but he may not get a lot of help from his receivers. Mohamed Massaquoi and Greg Little don’t scare anyone on paper.
While Josh Cribbs in the one legitimate scoring threat on the Cleveland roster, I can’t imagine that his talents alone could swing this game in the Browns’ favor.
If the Eagles don’t win this game going away, many things will have had to go horribly wrong. We’re talking about a team that is in a major rebuilding mode, and will in all likelihood finish with one of the five worst records in the league. Even though they’ve improved their offensive talent through the draft, the unit is still in the infancy of their development, and can’t possibly compete with a team that many (myself not included) expect to win at least 10 games and win their division. I expect the Eagles to win with ease, and hopefully get Michael Vick and the offense in sync as they prepare for a legitimate opponent next week when the Baltimore Ravens come to town.