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NFL Preview - Cleveland (0-0) at Tampa Bay (0-0)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It's a mantra of every NFL season.
Regardless of how awful a team plays in the first three months of a given 16- game schedule, a strong finish in the final four of five weeks earns the label of "one to watch" the following year.
No matter that encore seasons begin nine calendar months later, and, in an age of unfettered player movement, a roster in September can be markedly changed from its December predecessor.
So what ... it makes for good copy.
Testing the tenuous axiom for 2010 will be the Cleveland Browns.
Last season - their first in the iron grip of head coach/secret-keeper Eric Mangini - the Browns lost four games, won one and lost seven more to find themselves 1-11 by Dec. 7.
But then, it seems, the "Man Genius" in Mangini took over.
Rather than cementing their status over the final four games and locking up a crack at Sam Bradford with the No. 1 overall draft pick, the Clevelanders rocked the AFC house with consecutive beatings of Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Oakland and Jacksonville.
The result in April - pick No. 7 (Florida CB Joe Haden) instead of pick No. 1 (Bradford).
The result in September - at least one analyst (New Orleans-based Ralph Malbrough) sees the Browns as a playoff dark horse.
"In November everyone will be saying, 'I can't believe team X is 7-5 and fighting for a playoff spot. Who saw that coming?' The Browns will be that team," said Malbrough, a football analyst for WWLTV.com.
"Cleveland Browns fans watched the New Orleans Saints just win the Super Bowl. If watching the Saints win a Super Bowl doesn't make you believe any team can turn themselves around then you simply don't believe in the impossible."
It's seems 1/16th less impossible when viewing their initial opponent.
In Tampa Bay, the Browns face one of six teams that picked before them in April's selection circus (Oklahoma DT Gerald McCoy) and one that was just average enough - 2-2 in the final four games after an ugly 1-12 start - to cede the September surprise moniker for this season.
Quarterback Josh Freeman showed glimpses of promise while struggling through a rookie gauntlet with the Bucs, but a broken right thumb in this year's preseason - which limited him in the team's Wednesday practice session - hasn't helped generate much positive early spin.
"The Bucs' youth movement is far from finished," said Peter King of SI.com, "and we're still in the process of finding out if (head coach Raheem) Morris, 33, and general manager Mark Dominik, 38, have a plan that will produce incremental progress."
The Browns enter the season with the NFL's 10th-hardest schedule, which will see them play opponents who combined for a .516 winning percentage last season - including 11 teams who were .500 or better and seven playoff participants.
The Bucs, meanwhile, face the 25th-ranked schedule, consisting of foes with a .480 winning clip - 11 teams at .500 or better and five who reached the postseason.
Cleveland has a 5-2 edge in its all-time series with Tampa Bay, though the losses have come in each of its last two meetings with the Buccaneers. The Bucs were 22-7 road winners when they last faced the Browns, in 2006, and took a 17-3 decision when Cleveland last visited Tampa Bay in 2002. The Browns won the first five installments in the series, with their most recent win coming at home in 1995. The Browns, who last won in Tampa in 1989, are 3-1 there all- time.
The Browns' Mangini and Buccaneers' Morris will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Bucking the youthful trend, veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme makes his Browns debut against a team he saw frequently during his stint in Carolina. Delhomme is 9-2 as starter against the Bucs and has completed 181-of-297 passes for 2,228 passing yards versus Tampa. The former Super Bowl participant is 108 passing yards shy of 20,000 for his career. In the backfield, running back Jerome Harrison averaged 111.1 yards per game in seven starts and can continue a stretch that saw him finish with three straight triple-digit games in 2009 and five touchdowns. On the outside, wide receiver/kick returner Joshua Cribbs posted 2,510 combined yards last season - fifth-best in NFL history - and became the first player to reach 1,000 return yards in his first five seasons. Fellow big-play wideout Mohamed Massaquoi averaged 18.4 yards per catch as rookie, hauling in 34 passes for 624 yards. Lastly, another veteran, ex- Patriots tight end Ben Watson, makes his Cleveland debut.
Morris and Co. have quite a task in resurrecting the Bucs defense to its Super Bowl level of not so long ago. Tampa Bay was a minus-5 in turnover ratio last season and allowed an average of 365.6 total yards per game. The Bucs surrendered 30 or more points five times in their 13 losses, but, on a positive note, not one time after a 38-7 loss to New Orleans on Nov. 22. The aforementioned McCoy makes his NFL regular season debut on the front line, where he's expected to solidify a run-stopping unit that was 32nd in the league in 2009. End Stylez G. White was the team leader with 6.5 sacks, while linebackers Barrett Ruud and Geno Hayes return after recording career-bests of 143 and 98 tackles, respectively. Ruud has led the team in tackles for three straight seasons. In the backfield, ageless cornerback Ronde Barber is one of just two players in league history with 25 or more sacks and 30 or more interceptions. He started all 16 games for the 10th straight season in 2009 and has scored 13 career touchdowns. The Bucs will be without corner Aqib Talib, who is serving a one-game suspension for a violation of the NFL personal conduct policy.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Much will depend on the health of Freeman, the lanky Kansas State alum who started nine games and won two of his last three to close out 2009. He completed 158-of-290 throws for 1,855 yards and 10 touchdowns in year No. 1, but also threw 18 interceptions and racked up an unseemly 59.8 QB rating. He will be buoyed with a few more options this season, including rookie wideouts Arrelious Benn (Illinois) and Mike Williams (Syracuse), who've warranted rave reviews during training camp. Among the holdovers are former Browns draft pick Kellen Winslow, who caught 82 passes for 1,106 yards for Cleveland on the way to the Pro Bowl in 2007 and had a Tampa Bay tight end record 77 catches and 884 yards last season. Wideout Maurice Stovall had a pair of catches for 45 yards in his lone career meeting with the Browns, but is a question mark due to an ankle issue. On the ground, running back Cadillac Williams is back after a team-high 823 yards and four TDs in 2009.
The defensive backfield for Cleveland features the most changes, including the arrival of rookie cornerback Haden from a successful collegiate stint with the Gators and the signing of cornerback Sheldon Brown, who had a career-best five interceptions last season with Philadelphia. Holdover corner Eric Wright had a career year last season as well with four interceptions. Up front, the Browns were molded to Mangini's hard-edged, pressure-the-offense mentality, recording 40 sacks. Linebacker Scott Fujita was a spotlight offseason acquisition after winning a Super Bowl with the Saints last season. He had 58 tackles and one sack with New Orleans. Also on the linebacker corps are Chris Gocong (44 tackles, one sack) and Matt Roth (32 tackles). Up front, Cleveland features a personnel grab-bag with Shaun Rogers (36 tackles, 2 sacks), Kenyon Coleman (38 tackles, 1.5 sacks), and Robaire Smith (62 tackles, 1.5 sacks).
The Browns have the weapons in this one, most notably Cribbs and his big-play ability at wideout. Harrison should be good for 100 on the ground as well against the remnants of a porous 2009 run defense. A gritty Browns defense is also a better play against an inexperienced Freeman with an iffy throwing hand.
Say what you will about dark horse projections and the pertinence in September of momentum generated last December, the bottom line here comes down to talent - which the Browns have more of at nearly every important position. Over four quarters, that should offset the advantage of home opener enthusiasm at Raymond James.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Browns 24, Buccaneers 14
09/09 14:41:43 ET