The Pro Football Notebook

December 22, 2010 8:46 AM

Can Cleveland & Oakland Play Spoiler?

BrownsAsSpoiler.jpgWith two weeks to go in the regular season, the line between contenders and also-rans is pretty stark, and the main question is which teams in the latter group are going to step up and be live dogs and spoil someone's playoff hopes and/or positioning. No two teams have bigger opportunities ahead of them, or more prospects for success than do Cleveland and Oakland. The Browns host Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The Raiders will host Indianapolis this week and then go to Kansas City. Three of the AFC's four division titles--everyone except New England and the East--is going to be affected by how Cleveland and Oakland come out these next two weeks.

Two weeks ago the Browns looked primed to give their AFC North rivals everything they could handle. They were playing tough defense, running the ball behind Peyton Hillis and getting some clutch quarterback play from Colt McCoy. Cleveland had beaten New Orleans and New England, taken the Jets to overtime and been competitive in losses to Atlanta and Jacksonville. Even when McCoy missed some time with a high ankle sprain, Jake Delhomme was able to step in and play well. The last two games though, have caused some concern about where Cleveland is at mentally and physically. They've lost back-to-back games to Buffalo and Cincinnati, the games that were supposed to be wins that separated them from the lower part of the league and got them to .500. Instead it dropped them to 5-9 and has questions circulating around the team about whether they've lost their physical toughness. Last week against the Bengals, Cedric Benson gashed them for 150 yards on the ground and the previous week Fred Jackson went for 112. With Ray Rice and Rashard Mendenhall coming into town, the run defense is the first thing that needs to be fixed. McCoy played well in the loss to the Bengals and he's done a good job in showing he can lead a team to a win when the running game and the defense keeps him in it. But he's too young and his outside weapons to impotent to expect throwing the ball to produce a win--especially against the defenses coming to town and the weather likely to be a factor. Cleveland needs to re-establish its identity and fast if they want fans in rival cities to be cursing them all offseason.

Oakland's track record as a spoiler is validated by this--they're already 3-0 in games against AFC West leaders San Diego and Kansas City. The Raiders aren't built on defense like Cleveland is--Oakland ranks 10th in the AFC in points allowed. They are playing with backup quarterback Jason Campbell, although frankly there's little difference between him and Bruce Gradowski--with the possible exception that Campbell might actually be a little bit better. Oakland has a big playmaker in Darren McFadden who can make things happen in both the running game and the passing game. Oakland is going to need to show they can play some consistent defense. Indianapolis will challenge them in the air and Kansas City will challenge them in the ground. The Raiders are a much tougher team to read than Cleveland--Oakland's been blown out by Pittsburgh and Miami, but turned around and hammered a hot San Diego team on the road. You never know what you're going to get and that makes them the very definition of a spoiler team, the kind a contender with its season on the line doesn't want to deal with.

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