For a team that is – once again – going through a rebuilding process, the goals must be kept simple. The Cleveland Browns, who are at .500 for the first time since 2007, travel west to play San Francisco 49ers at 4:15 p.m. on Sunday.
The Browns need achieve a simple goal Sunday.
Score a touchdown.
Rumor has it the Browns have done this previously during the 2011 season. In fact, the last time it happened there was 1 minute, 6 seconds remaining in the game against Oakland on Oct. 16. Quarterback Colt McCoy found Mohamed Massaquoi for a 12-yard touchdown pass.
That's the good news.
Here's the bad news.
The Browns lost the game against Oakland 24-17. The following week, the Browns beat Seattle 6-3, thanks to two 50-plus-yard field goals from Phil Dawson. Cleveland finished that game without its best running back (Peyton Hillis-hamstring), its best tight end (Ben Watson-concussion) and arguably its best wide receiver (Massaquoi). A little luck and a little grit gave the Browns the victory, as they are one-game out of first place in the AFC North behind Pittsburgh (5-2), Baltimore (4-2) and Cincinnati (4-2).
The 49ers are not the Seahawks. San Francisco will be a real test for this young Browns team. The 49ers have won four consecutive games to improve to 5-1. Those four wins have come against the Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Detroit Lions, teams that are a combined 15-11.
Massaquoi will not play while Hillis and Watson were listed as questionable on Friday.
Even with those three aforementioned players, the Browns offense has struggled this season. Cleveland is ranked 29th in rushing yards per game (91.5), 22nd in pass yard per game (216.8) and 23rd in total yard per game (308.3).
Meanwhile, the 49ers defense has been stout. Only once has an opponent rushed for more than 100 yards, as the 49ers are ranked second in the league against the run allowing an average of 74.7 yards a game.
"(The 49ers have) big bodies up front and athletic linebackers," Hillis said. "The linemen take all the pressure off the linebackers and of course you have one of the best linebackers in the league if not the best defensive player in Patrick Willis. That's probably why they do so well."
Last week, the Browns ran the ball 44 times for 141 yards, which is a 3.2 yards per carry average. The 49ers expect more of the same from the Browns, whose offense is beginning to do its best Woody Hayes impression.
The Browns need to start getting vertical.
"I'd like us to become a team that can (run and pass) well," Shurmur said. "When I talk about throwing the ball we need to be efficient and that's get completions. In our style of offense, regardless of how you choose to run the football, you should be able to be very good at running it as well."
McCoy finished 20-for-35 passing for 178 yards with no touchdowns and a head-scratching interception. It wasn't McCoy's worst game, but considering the Browns finished with four field goal attempts and not touchdowns, end result wasn't pretty.
Thankfully, the 2011 Browns have an improving defense and it has kept this team in games. The Browns are currently ranked fourth in the NFL in total defensive yards per game (291.0), second in passing yards per game (172.0) and 19th in rushing yards (119.0).
There are two schools of thought as to why the Browns defense has played so well. One, the last two drafts have resulted in talented defensive players contributing right away. Two, the list of opposing quarterbacks the Browns have faced this season are among the league's worst.
Andy Dalton/Bruce Gradkowski
This week it's Alex Smith. He hasn't lived up to his No. 1 overall status, but he has had a re-emergence this year under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. Smith is 100-for-158 passing for 1,090 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions, which is thanks, in part, to targets like tight end Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree. In addition, the 49ers running game is led by Frank Gore (5.0 yards per carry average).
"They run the ball quite a bit and the things they're asking (Smith) to do, he's able to do," Shurmur said. "It's a credit to what Jim (Harbaugh) has done with that team and they're playing well. They've got talented players, I think they've got eight first rounders on offense so they have talented players and a good scheme. They've got the quarterback playing at a high level and that makes him very dangerous."
All this ads up to a game in which the Browns should not and are not expected to win. It's kind of like last season when the Browns had no business beating New England or New Orleans.
It's why we watch every game.