This is it for the Cleveland Browns. Sunday’s game at home against the four-win San Francisco 49ers might be the team’s last best chance to win this season, given the schedule that remains. A loss on Sunday will likely extend into the team’s three games that follow and, if that should be the case, will mean Cleveland’s last victory of the season came in Week 5 against the Baltimore Ravens.
That’s not to say that the Browns will not or cannot beat the Niners. Blaine Gabbert is their quarterback. Running back Carlos Hyde has been placed on injured reserve, meaning that former Brown Shaun Draughn is their starting back for the game. Receiver Torrey Smith is currently questionable with a back injury and fellow receiver Anquan Boldin will be playing through an ailing hamstring.
The game also marks the return of Johnny Manziel as the Browns’ starting quarterback. And with Manziel and the Browns wanting to get something good on tape, whether as a building block for the 2016 season or as a tool to be employed during any potential trade talks, the incentives are there for Manziel to have a good game. And remember: Cleveland’s passing offense has not been its big weakness this year, and San Francisco’s defense ranks 27th in passing yards (29th on the road). A problem? The Niners are giving up just 1.4 passing touchdowns per game this year, while the Browns are scoring 1.5 passing touchdowns on average. And another one? Nearly all of the Browns receivers are again either out or questionable with various injuries, such as Brian Hartline's hip, Marlon Moore's ribs, Travis Benjamin's shoulder and Andrew Hawkins' and Taylor Gabriel's concussions. It looks liek the receiving corps could be shorthanded for a second straight week.
Meanwhile, discussing the run game or the run defense for the Browns is simply not worth the time. We all know how bad both have been this year—the Browns rank dead last in rushing yards this season and 31st in rushing yards allowed. They have among the fewest rushing attempts in the league but are being run against more than all but two teams. The Niners, without Frank Gore and now Hyde, haven’t been powerhouses on the ground this season, but against this Cleveland defense they don’t have to be in order to pull out a good game. After all, San Francisco at least has six games this year with over 100 collective yards rushing; the Browns have four, and the last time it happened was in Week 6.
Indeed, the outcome of Sunday’s game does not seem to hinge on which team is better but rather, which team is worse. That’s not a good feeling, to be sure. But that also means that the Browns do have more than just a fleeting chance to win. The home-field advantage is firmly in Cleveland’s favor, even if the stands are half-full, simply because of the taxing nature of the Niners being a West Coast team having to play an early Eastern time zone game. A major question the Browns will have to answer, though, is whether or not they can keep Manziel protected from the Niners’ pass-rush. While his mobility could help neutralize it, that hasn’t been the case often enough this year to be all that confident in that happening.
Manziel has already been sacked 14 times in seven game appearances and three starts, or on a team-leading 9.9 percent of his drop backs. Though the Niners have a combined 20 sacks on the year, the linebacking trio of Ahmad Brooks, Aaron Lynch and NaVorro Bowman have accounted for 12 of them. With the Browns turning to Austin Pasztor at left guard and the line struggling with pass protection all season long, the task of keeping Manziel upright enough to exploit the Niners’ pass-coverage weaknesses will be the battle to watch on Sunday.
Looking at how the Browns’ season has come to pass thus far, it’s hard to imagine that their next two weeks—road contests against the Seattle Seahawks and the Kansas City Chiefs—plus the home stand against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that could still be battling for a postseason berth in Week 17 will result in any wins for Cleveland. They just aren’t good enough. While the Browns’ season doesn’t end on Sunday, it sure feels like the Niners are the team’s last believable chance to win this year. And even that isn’t a given. A long December is ahead, indeed.