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NFL Preview - Jacksonville (7-8) at Cleveland (4-11)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Frustrated, angry, sad. Those were some of the sentiments expressed by Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew following his team's third straight loss this past weekend in New England.
The Jaguars suffered their fourth defeat in five weeks following a 6-4 start to the season with a sound 35-7 beating by the Patriots, and will try to keep their hazy postseason hopes alive when they close out the regular-season schedule this Sunday afternoon against the host Cleveland Browns.
Jones-Drew was very emotional after the Jags dropped to 7-8 this season, mentioning how the team has a lot of soul searching to do. Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio, who has just one playoff win in his tenure, agreed by saying that it's "far-fetched to talk about playoffs".
Del Rio is half right, since the Jaguars are still mathematically alive in the hunt for an AFC Wild Card berth. There are currently five teams with an 8-7 record and Jacksonville needs all of them to lose this week and beat the Browns as well. Christmas has just passed, but there's still hope for a miracle for the Jaguars, who were once in control of their own playoff destiny before imploding down the stretch.
Cleveland seems to be headed in the right direction now that Mike Holmgren is on board to run the show. The Browns have won three straight games and can spoil Jacksonville's postseason dreams with a win Sunday in front of the home crowd. The game could be the last for Browns head coach Eric Mangini, but a four-game winning streak could also be what he needs to stay employed.
Mangini has a chance to match his old mentor, Bill Belichick, with a win on Sunday. Belichick's 1994 Browns team was the last to win four games in a row when it ripped off five consecutive victories to finish with an 11-5 mark.
The Browns had dropped seven in a row before their recent success and certainly have the confidence to send Jacksonville home for the playoffs. They have posted tough wins over Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Oakland, and could set themselves up for a promising 2010 campaign with another triumph.
Running back Jerome Harrison has been a major factor in the team's latest success and rushed for than 100 yards for a second straight week in last Sunday's 23-9 triumph over the Raiders. Harrison, who has 30 or more carries in back-to-back weeks, posted 148 yards and a score on 39 touches.
Along with Harrison's contributions, the Cleveland defense recorded three interceptions to keep the Oakland offense off the field, while quarterback Derek Anderson did enough to earn the win in his first start in several weeks.
Mangini can only hope for an encore performance in Sunday's season finale.
Jacksonville has a 8-3 edge in its all-time series with Cleveland, but was a 23-17 home loser when the Browns visited in Week 8 of last season. The Jaguars won the previous meeting, a 20-14 triumph in Cleveland in 2005. The Browns are 0-5 against the Jags in series home games, and the road team has now won the last five installments of the series overall.
Del Rio is 1-1 in his career against the Browns. Mangini was 0-1 against both Del Rio and the Jags during his tenure with the New York Jets (2006-08), with that loss coming in 41-0 fashion in Jacksonville in 2006.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Jags quarterback David Garrard (3,395 passing yards, 13 TD, 9 INT) didn't do much to help his team in last week's loss at New England, as he completed 19- of-25 passes for 185 yards and two interceptions. He has three interceptions and three touchdown passes in his last three games -- all losses -- and is aware of this weekend's playoff circumstances. Jacksonville has a long shot at extending its season, but it must handle business one step at a time. The Jags are 22nd in total points, 18th in passing and 16th in total yards this season. Rookie wideout Mike Thomas (41 receptions, 1 TD) led the team with 57 yards on six catches this past Sunday, while top target Mike Sims-Walker (61 receptions, 7 TD) was held to just 19 yards on two receptions. Veteran Torry Holt (51 receptions) is still searching for his first touchdown catch in a Jaguars uniform, but is second on the team with 722 receiving yards. Sims- Walker is first with 841. Jones-Drew is a reliable source out of the backfield, having caught 51 passes this year, and will be fired up Sunday with hopes of making another run at the postseason.
In an interesting twist for a meager Cleveland secondary, wide receiver Mike Furrey started at safety against the Raiders and finished with five tackles. Regular safety Mike Adams (63 tackles, 1 sack) started at cornerback and led the team with seven tackles. Adams also had a sack and a pair of passes defensed, while defensive backs Eric Wright (60 tackles, 3 INT) and Brandon McDonald each had an interception, with Wright leading the way with three passes defensed. The defensive backs have a good challenge against Garrard and his wideouts, but are a part of a unit rated 29th against the pass. Wright and McDonald will have to step up their game in order to keep the Browns winning.
Jones-Drew is fifth in the league with 1,309 yards rushing and second with 15 rushing TD. If he plays with only a hint of his anger after the loss to New England, the Browns are in for a long afternoon. He has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark just once in his last six games and recorded 63 yards on 18 touches in New England. Be sure to catch Jones-Drew making plays with his hands this Sunday as well. Garrard is a mobile quarterback and is second on the team with 283 rushing yards on 72 scrambles. Del Rio will most likely try to keep the game close with the running game to control the time of possession and keep the Browns off the field. Jones-Drew became the 16th player in franchise history to make the Pro Bowl when team were announced on Tuesday.
Cleveland is just 28th against the run this season and will surely see a load of Jones-Drew, who was severely disappointed after the loss to New England. The Browns cooled off Raiders running back Michael Bush by holding the streaking back to 52 yards on 10 carries last week. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan saw his unit record four sacks for 32 yards lost and a season-high three picks as well, with linebacker David Bowens (71 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT) posting the other interception against Oakland. Bowens is second on the team in stops behind Elam, and will join linebackers Kamerion Wimbley (67 tackles, 6.5 sacks), Jason Trusnik (50 tackles, 2 sacks) and Matt Roth (27 tackles, 4 sacks) in trying to keep Jacksonville one-dimensional. Ends Kenyon Coleman (38 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Robaire Smith (60 tackles, 1 sack) must stay at home on Sunday, since Garrard is talented enough to scramble to safety. Coleman left this past week's game with an ankle injury and is questionable for Sunday.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Anderson (802 passing yards, 3 TD, 9 INT) was 8-of-17 for 121 yards and a touchdown in the win over Oakland. He is back under center after starter Brady Quinn was recently placed on injured reserve with a foot injury, and made Mohamed Massaquoi (33 receptions, 3 TDs) his favorite target in his first start since November 1. The rookie receiver finished with 61 yards and a touchdown on three catches. Anderson didn't have to do much since Harrison carried the load for the second straight week, but Jacksonville is still alive for the playoffs and will be aiming for the quarterback's head on Sunday. Meanwhile, Massaquoi leads the Browns with 610 receiving yards, while Harrison is second on the team with 32 catches. Harrison owns 200 receiving yards and a pair of touchdown catches this season for Cleveland, which is last in passing offense and total yards. Wide receiver/return man Josh Cribbs has hauled in 20 passes this season, but does most of his damage on special teams. He broke the NFL kickoff return touchdown record last week and will be headed to the Pro Bowl in February. In offensive line news, tackle John St. Clair (ankle) is questionable for Sunday's game and fellow tackle Joe Thomas will join Cribbs at the Pro Bowl. Thomas is the first Browns player to be named to three consecutive Pro Bowls since defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry from 1990-92. The last time a Browns offensive lineman was selected to three consecutive Pro Bowls was Hall of Famer Gene Hickerson, who was named from 1966-69.
The Jaguars were shredded last week by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who was nearly perfect with a 23-of-26 passing mark for 267 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. New England's Randy Moss ended with four receptions, three of which were for touchdowns, while slot wideout Wes Welker killed Jacksonville's 27th-rated pass defense with 138 yards on a game-high 13 catches. Cleveland doesn't instill nearly half as much fear into a defense like the Pats do, which is why Jaguars defensive backs Derek Cox (68 tackles, 3 INT) and Rashean Mathis (33 tackles, 3 INT) will be ready for whatever Mangini has up his sleeve. Mathis is probable for Sunday with a groin injury. Safeties Gerald Alexander (50 tackles, 2 INT) and Reggie Nelson (70 tackles) must not give up the big play, since postseason hopes are riding on it. Del Rio's front line also has to apply pressure on Sunday after not even laying a hand on Brady last week. Young ends Derrick Harvey (50 tackles, 2 sacks) and Quentin Groves (29 tackles, 1 INT) have an opportunity to sharpen their skills.
Harrison (735 rushing yards, 4 TD) has been running rampant the last two weeks and will face a Jaguars unit that used to be one of the best at stopping the run. He is enjoying a career season, and the future looks bright for the Browns if they use Harrison's services correctly. The Washington State product, who is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and is up for the NFL FedEx Ground Player of the Week for a second straight game, is the only reason why Cleveland is a decent 10th in the NFL in rushing yards. Harrison's 39 rushing attempts on Sunday were a team record, breaking Lee Suggs' mark of 38 touches established at Miami on December 26, 2004, and are the most by an individual player in the NFL in 2009. He also became the first Browns player to follow a 200-yard rushing performance with a 100-yard effort, as well as the first Cleveland player to record consecutive 100-yard rushing contests since Jamal Lewis ran for 118 yards at the Jets on December 9, 2007 and for 163 yards versus Buffalo on December 16.
Stopping the run used to be Jacksonville's forte, but now it's ranked 16th in that category this season. Patriots running back Sammy Morris posted 95 yards and a touchdown on 12 touches last week to set up Brady's passing. Jaguars mammoth tackle John Henderson (29 tackles, 3 sacks) leads the defense in sacks and should be more determined to have a better performance with a possible playoff berth on the line. Tackle Terrance Knighton (40 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Henderson must plug Harrison's running lanes Sunday and force him outside. Del Rio's linebackers are tough and gritty, but will face a tough challenge in trying to stop Harrison. Daryl Smith (96 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) leads the team in stops and had a team-best 10 last week, while Justin Durant (94 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) ended with six.
With most fantasy leagues now over and some winding down, Sunday has a few players that will peak the interest of owners. Jones-Drew is an obvious stud and will have a productive day against a porous Cleveland defense. This may sound like a stretch, but Holt is a good sleeper pick for this week since he's still in search of his first touchdown catch in Jacksonville. Sims-Walker didn't do much against the Patriots, but that shouldn't deter owners from giving him another chance on Sunday. As for the Browns, Harrison has been a pleasant find for owners lately and will most likely be a nice acquisition for keeper leagues in the 2010 fantasy season. Massaquoi is the only other Cleveland player worth giving a fantasy chance this week.
The Jaguars must not get caught up in the other teams they need help from on Sunday, or else they'll be joining the Browns on the sofa during the playoffs. They have to win and need several different scenarios to play out in their favor to punch a ticket to the postseason. Business must be handled in order and Del Rio's job may be on the line this week. His team didn't show its defensive prowess against a superior New England team last week, and he witnessed his secondary get torched for 60 minutes. Jones-Drew was visibly disturbed following the embarrassing road loss, and it won't be a surprise if he comes close to 200 yards rushing on Sunday. He'll be squaring off against Cleveland resurgent running back Harrison, whose contributions alone will keep the Browns afloat this weekend. But in the end, Cleveland's dreams of the first four-game winning streak in its expansion era will be just that.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jaguars 27, Browns 16
12/31 13:14:09 ET