Denver Broncos vs. Cleveland Browns: Matchups, prediction for Thursday Night Football showdown

The Denver Broncos vs. Cleveland Browns features two teams who are hurt and reeling. Making matters worse, both QBs are in slumps.

The Cleveland Browns and the Denver Broncos are both a mess six weeks into the season. Both squads are on losing streaks — two games for Cleveland, three for Denver — and have major questions at quarterback. Baker Mayfield is out with a painful shoulder injury and Case Keenum will start. Teddy Bridgewater just tied a career-high in interceptions. There’s nowhere for either team to hide this week and very little time to get it fixed. At least the Broncos have good options at running back. The Browns, with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt out with calf injuries, do not.

The Browns and Broncos, both 3-3, meet on national television Thursday night. But let’s not bury either team just yet. Whoever wins will be in seventh place in the AFC and very much in the playoff conversation.

Denver Broncos offense vs. Cleveland Browns defense

After scoring 86 points in the season’s first three games — all wins, not coincidentally — the Broncos have managed just 50 in the past three — all losses, again, not coincidentally. Denver actually was pretty effective moving the ball in a Week 6 loss to the Raiders. The Broncos had 421 yards of offense and 25 first downs but suffered 4 turnovers. Additionally, going 5-of-14 on third downs didn’t help.

As for the Browns? Yeeesh. They have given up the most points in the NFL since the start of Week 5 (84). In their three losses this year, Cleveland has surrendered 117 points. In their three wins? Just 34. That’s incredible. But a deeper look at the numbers, at least from Cleveland’s Week 6 loss to Arizona, tells a different story. The Browns got three red-zone stops and held the Cardinals to 5.1 yards per play. In most weeks, that’s a winning formula.

Teddy Bridgewater vs. Browns defense

A big reason Bridgewater won the starting job over Drew Lock was his ball security. Lock has a higher ceiling, but coaches viewed Bridgewater as the better fit on a team hoping to win with defense, field position, and a punishing run game. So when Bridgewater has a game like he did against the Raiders Sunday — 3 picks and a lost fumble — the Broncos have no chance to win.

Broadening the focus a bit doesn’t really flatter Bridgewater, who has completed 64.1% of his passes and averaged 6.7 yards per attempt during Denver’s losing streak. “I believe in Teddy to lead our offense,” Broncos head coach Vic Fangio said this week. Making matters worse: Bridgewater has a foot injury that limited his participation in practice all week. He’s officially questionable to play Thursday.

The Browns probably feel like they’re catching a break after facing MVP candidates in each of the last two weeks. Against Justin Herbert and Kyler Murray, they allowed a touchdown every 8.6 passing attempts. Those star quarterbacks combined for a passer rating of 126.9 and 8.6 yards per attempt. Not surprisingly, Cleveland’s once-lofty rankings have suffered. They now rank 25th in passer rating against (102.5) and 28th in third-down defense (45.1%).

Advantage: Push

Broncos weapons vs. Browns defensive backs

Star wide receiver Jerry Jeudy has not played since the opener due to an ankle injury, and even though he’s trending in the right direction, he is not expected to play Thursday. Courtland Sutton would be a top-tier wide receiver with a little more consistency. He is still averaging 14.3 yards per catch, even with a risk-averse quarterback. But he also has just a 56.2% catch rate. Credit Sutton for improving his hands, however. He has just 1 drop in 53 targets this year.

Tight end Noah Fant had a career-high 9 catches for 97 yards and a touchdown in Denver’s Week 6 loss to Las Vegas. Furthermore, running backs Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams are both averaging over 4.5 yards per carry.

The Browns worked Greg Newsome back in slowly from a calf injury, which might have been smart. Newsome wasn’t 100%. He was part of a defensive breakdown that allowed a 33-yard completion to DeAndre Hopkins and didn’t make a play in 28 snaps against the Cardinals. Troy Hill and Greedy Williams are both currently ahead of Newsome on the depth chart, but that will likely change once the rookie gets back in game shape.

Even after a rough two-week stretch, the Browns are still ninth in pass defense (220.7 yards per game) and 14th in pass defense efficiency (6.8 yards per play).

Advantage: Push

Broncos offensive line vs. Browns defensive front

Bridgewater was under duress almost the entire game Sunday. The Raiders had 5 sacks and hit him a staggering 17 times. Maxx Crosby ate Denver’s lunch — 3 sacks, 5 hits — but it wasn’t all on tackles Garett Bolles and Bobby Massie. The Broncos struggled with stunts too. The line has been leaky all season, allowing a sack every 11.5 pass attempts. Denver has been good on the ground, though. “We believe this is a good O-line,” Fangio said.

That belief will be put to the test Thursday. Myles Garrett leads all NFL players with 8 sacks and has 17 quarterback hits and 9 tackles for loss. Garrett accounts for 44.4% of the Browns’ sacks this season. Jadeveon Clowney has been really good (9 quarterback hits, 6 tackles for loss), and Takkarist McKinley is a solid No. 3 pass rusher. Yet, the Browns will be without rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah due to an ankle injury.

Advantage: Browns

Cleveland Browns offense vs. Denver Broncos defense

What a slogfest Week 6 was for Cleveland. The Browns had their worst game of the season, either tying or setting 2021 lows in points (14), yards (290), and first downs (16). They converted just 3 of 10 third downs, 1 of 4 fourth downs, 1 of 3 red-zone chances, and controlled the ball for just 25:21. So how will that improve Thursday with Mayfield, Chubb and Hunt all out?

The Broncos, however, have reason to believe last week was an anomaly. Denver surrendered season-high points (34) and yards (426), but that was a reflection of an out-of-character breakdown on the back end. The Broncos allowed 7 pass plays of 20 or more yards Sunday after giving up just 16 in the first five weeks. They still rank second in first downs conceded (16.2) and fourth in both points allowed (18.3) and yards allowed (314.7).

Case Keenum vs. Broncos defense

There’s no way Mayfield’s injury was not impacting his play. Mayfield’s QBR (41.5) and touchdown rate (1.7%) are both the worst of his career. So it’s possible the Browns actually get improved quarterback play this week with Case Keenum under center. Keenum is probably one of the better backups in the league, with 62 career starts and a lifetime passer rating of 85.1.

The Broncos, meanwhile, are physically healthy, but their egos are bruised after surrendering 341 passing yards on 30 Derek Carr dropbacks. Their overall numbers are still solid — 11th in passing yards allowed per game (229.2) and 17th in yards per pass (7.1) — but after Sunday’s contest, you begin to wonder if they’ve gotten fat off of a bunch of mediocre-to-bad quarterbacks. Denver’s wins have come against Daniel Jones, Trevor Lawrence, and Zach Wilson.

Advantage: Broncos

Browns weapons vs. Broncos defensive backs

Don’t check the Browns’ injury report if you’ve got a weak stomach. It’s gruesome. Beyond Chubb and Hunt’s issues, Odell Beckham Jr. has a shoulder injury. And Jarvis Landry has not played since Week 2, but is expected to give it a go Thursday. Yet, the Browns still rank fourth in yards per catch (12.7). David Njoku (17.7) and Donovan Peoples-Jones (17.5) deserve a lot of credit for that. The Browns’ options at running back are Ernest Johnson, Demetric Felton and John Kelly. This could get ugly.

Now, for Denver, Fangio summed up their Week 6 meltdown succinctly: “We’ve gotten beat deep and that’s something we need to rectify.” Indeed. The Broncos gave up more pass plays of 40+ yards Sunday (3) than 10 teams have allowed all season. Ronald Darby was back from a four-game hamstring injury absence but was far from sharp. Patrick Surtain has had a solid rookie year, limiting opponents to a 60% completion rate. Still, the Broncos would benefit from forcing more turnovers. As a unit, they rank 17th in interception rate (2.1%).

Advantage: Broncos

Browns offensive line vs. Broncos defensive front

Offensive line is supposed to be the strength of Cleveland’s offense, but it wasn’t Sunday. The Cardinals sacked Mayfield 5 times. A reason? The Browns were without both starting tackles, Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin, because of injury. It’s no coincidence that their yards-per-carry average was nearly a yard off their season mark. Nonetheless, Cleveland ranks first in rushing yards (168.5) and rushing efficiency (5.2). As for pass protection, it is no bueno. The Browns are fifth-worst in sack rate (10.2%).

The Broncos would have a really good front if they can ever get Bradley Chubb and Von Miller on the field together at the same time. Chubb is still just four weeks removed from ankle surgery and while he wants to return in 2021, it’s no sure thing. Starting linebacker Alexander Johnson is out for the season with a pec injury. That will hurt a Broncos run defense that ranks fifth in yards (85.5) and yards per carry (3.7).

Advantage: Push (depending on injury)

Betting line and game prediction

The Browns opened the week favored by as much as 6 points. But anyone who laid those points without clarity on Cleveland’s quartberack situation was foolish. The line fell through the week and landed on Cleveland minus-2 on Wednesday. We still think that’s too generous. Even after the Broncos’ three-game losing streak, they’re still 10th in point differential and eighth in yard differential.

Prediction: Broncos 28, Browns 13

Adam Beasley is the National NFL Analyst and Insider for Pro Football Network. You can read all of Adam’s work here and give him a follow on Twitter @AdamHBeasley.