NFL Preview - Indianapolis (8-4) at Cleveland (7-5)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Indianapolis Colts could be the first NFL team to clinch a division title in 2014 but they won't be doing it at the expense of "Johnny Football."
Many thought the Colts, who can wrap up the AFC South win a win in Cleveland on Sunday coupled with a Houston loss at Jacksonville, would be facing a Browns team with first-round pick Johnny Manziel under center for his first start.
Instead, Cleveland coach Mike Pettine backtracked Wednesday after a few days of contemplation and is sticking with the embattled Brian Hoyer, at least for the time being.
"After thorough evaluation and talking to the staff, we feel Brian gives us the best opportunity to win on Sunday," said Pettine. "This is a football decision and those are always going to be based on what we think is best for our team."
Hoyer was benched early in the fourth quarter of last Sunday's 26-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills and Manziel stepped in to engineer an 8-play, 80-yard drive that he capped with a 10-yard touchdown scramble.
Manziel ended the game 5-of-8 for 63 yards, forcing the Browns into a critical decision about the team's future of the quarterback position.
Hoyer completed just 18-of-30 passes for 192 yards and two interceptions before being benched. In the past three games, he has thrown only one touchdown pass and six interceptions.
The Browns are 7-5 heading into Sunday's contest with the Colts and are tied with five other teams for the final AFC wild card spot.
"Brian has led our team to a 7-5 record," Pettine added. "I'm confident that we can get the entire offense playing at the level needed to accomplish the goals we set at the beginning of the season. Those goals are still very much attainable."
Hoyer, who is 10-5 as Cleveland's starting quarterback dating back to last season, has throw for 3,056 yards with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 12 games this year.
"It wasn't perfect and he's made his share of mistakes, but (Hoyer's) gotten the lion's share of reps in practice and virtually all of them in games and has us in the thick of a playoff hunt," Pettine said. "That, to me, was probably the biggest determining factor."
There is, of course, no such controversy with the Colts as Andrew Luck is piloting one of the best offenses in all of football.
In fact, Indianapolis scored six touchdowns of at least 30 yards in a 49-27 win over Washington in Week 13, becoming the first team to register at least six 30-plus touchdowns in a game since 1966 (Washington, Nov. 27, 1966, 72-41 win vs. New York Giants).
"We have incredibly explosive players all over the field," said Luck, who leads the league with 4,011 passing yards and joined Peyton Manning and Dan Marino as the only players in NFL history with at least 4,000 passing yards in two of their first three seasons.
Luck completed 19-of-27 throws against the Redskins for 370 yards and two of TDs went for more than 70 yards. Coby Fleener hauled in TD passes of 30 and 73 yards, while Donte Moncrief had scoring receptions of 48 and 79 yards in what was supposed to be a matchup of the top two picks in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Robert Griffin III, the second overall choice in 2012, was benched earlier in the week by Redskins coach Jay Gruden after three straight losing efforts, however. Colt McCoy, the winning quarterback in Washington's last two victories, threw for 392 yards with three touchdowns, but the Redskins defense could not stop Luck.
The Colts racked up 487 yards on just 49 plays, an average of 9.9 yards per play. Dan Herron added to the outburst with 88 yards on just eight carries, including a 49-yard touchdown run, as Indianapolis notched its second straight win.
Cleveland holds a slim 14-13 advantage in its all-time series with Indy but the Colts have won six of the past seven. The two teams haven't locked up in the Forest City since 2008, a 10-6 Indianapolis win.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Manziel did provide a spark in a game that was long over last weekend but that was fool's gold against a Bills D which took its foot off the gas. Rallying around the new guy is great but emotion like that can't be sustained for an entire football game, never mind a complete playoff push in the month of December.
A move away from Hoyer would have signaled that the Browns were succeeding despite Hoyer and fans would have been expecting Manziel to traverse troubled waters that not only include Luck and the Colts but also division games against frontrunner Cincinnati and 7-5 Baltimore over the final month.
With Hoyer Cleveland probably has a slim chance to make the postseason. Without him, slim is hopping a cab and is on his way to Hopkins International.
Hoyer's record as the starter in Cleveland is a number panned only by those who don't understand the organization was 20-57 in its previous 77 games without him.
Moving away from the guy who has won at a .667 clip and moving toward Manziel, who completed his first NFL pas slast week, woul heve been setting up the rookie to fail, especially in a matchup agaisnt the pure throwing Luck.
"Obviously, that's a decision that's made by coach Pettine," Manziel said. "And this week his answer was, 'No' so moving forward whatever transpires, maybe next time the answer will be, 'Yes.'"
Luck not only leads the NFL in passing yards, he is second with 34 TD passes and also second in the AFC at passer rating with a 103.0 mark. He captains an offense that is tops in all of football, piling up 438.3 yards per game with his favorite target being the explosive T.Y. Hilton, who leads the Colts with a career-high 1,145 receiving yards.
The Indy offense is also No. 1 the NFL with 6.2 yards per play and tops in explosive plays with 69 garnering over 20 yards.
"Once you throw the ball up for a big play, you want to be that guy," said veteran receiver Reggie Wayne, who has 54 catches for 636 yards of his own. "We had a lot of guys that were able to capitalize on that (Sunday). We got a lot of guys. We are pretty loaded."
Things could get even more loaded for Luck with the potential return of tight end Dwayne Allen, who has missed two games with a balky right ankle.
The best-case scenario for the Browns is to play ball control and keep it out of Luck's hands as much as possible and that means getting the running game going.
With Ben Tate now in Minnesota that means rookies Terrance West (502 yards, three touchdowns) and Isaiah Crowell (475 yards, seven touchdowns) need to have an impactful afternoon. Crowell, however, is dealing with a hip injury.
The game will also mark the return of Trent Richardson to Cleveland for the first time since being traded to the Colts on Sept. 18, 2013. Richardson, who struggled with the Brwons after being the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, hasn't sone much better with the Colts, amassing only 445 rushing yards at 3.3 yards per carry.
Credit Pettine for coming to his senses and doing his best to alleviate the rookie coaching mistake he made in Buffalo last weekend.
Cleveland has won four of its past six games and three of its past four at home but this looks like an untenable matchup because to beat Luck and the Colts, it almost has to be in a shootout. The Browns are ill-equipped to win in that fashion just yet. So why not let the veteran Hoyer take the heat?
"I always have a fire lit," Hoyer said. "Anytime someone questions you, you want to prove them wrong. I'm sure there are people questioning me all along, not just this week, throughout the entire season."
Sports Network predicted outcome: Colts 33, Browns 17
12/07 09:11:27 ET