NFL Preview – Cleveland (3-2) at Jacksonville (0-6) (ET)

By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) – The Jacksonville Jaguars are one game from a second
straight 0-7 start.

But if margins of defeat mean anything, their Sunday afternoon matchup with
the Cleveland Browns may finally be when the Ls start turning to Ws.

The Jaguars were double-digit losers in each of their first four games to
begin the season, getting no closer than 17 points in any and dropping the
collective quartet by an average 23.5-point chasm.

Progress in Week 5 yielded just an eight-point loss to the Pittsburgh
Steelers, and Week 6 brought victory within a single play – though it was
still denied when a Josh Scobee field goal try from 55 yards was blocked in
the final seconds of a 16-14 defeat by the Tennessee Titans.

Jacksonville was down by nine heading into the game’s last minute, but got a
chance for a dramatic celebration when rookie quarterback Blake Bortles found
Clay Harbor for a 20-yard touchdown with 37 seconds left. The Jaguars
recovered an onside kick and got into Titans territory before the kick
misfire.

Nonetheless, there were some things to be pleased about.

Cecil Shorts caught 10 passes – a career-high – after missing the Steelers
game with a hamstring problem, and the offense not only converted eight of 15
opportunities on third down, but also finished with 379 total yards, its best
output of the season.

“There are a lot of positives as we go through it,” coach Gus Bradley said.
“But the bottom line is we didn’t come away with what we had hoped for. We
addressed it, we talked about it as a team and I challenged them. I know we
have courage. We’re going to have to put that courage to work starting
today and address these things and continue to get better.”

Bortles, who will make his fourth start since taking over for veteran Chad
Henne, has completed better than two-thirds of his passes to rank sixth in the
league in that category. That said, he’s second from the bottom in TD-to-INT
ratio with a subpar 0.57.

His 336 air yards against Tennessee were the best of his young career, too.

“A loss is a loss,” he said. “You feel the same about it no matter whether you
lose by one or you lose by 40.”

Jacksonville beat the Browns, 32-28, for the third of its four wins last
season while improving to 10-5 against Cleveland in the all-time series since
the first meeting 19 years ago.

But suddenly, those feel more and more like your grandfather’s Browns.

This year’s edition heads to the Northeast Florida in search of an unlikely
third straight win for rookie coach Mike Pettine and starting quarterback
Brian Hoyer, whom most likely assumed would be old news at this point after
Cleveland drafted Johnny Manziel with its first-round pick in April.

The Browns rallied from 26 down to beat Tennessee two weeks ago, then rolled
back home and rolled the visiting Steelers, 31-10, for their biggest win in
that series since a 51-0 throttling in 1989.

Ben Tate and Isaiah Crowell combined for 155 yards and three touchdowns on the
ground, while Hoyer threw for 217 yards and a score while boosting his passer
rating to 99.5 (eighth in the league), running his ratio to seven TDs against
one interception and improving his yards per completion to 13.6 (best in
the league).

He’s 6-2 as a starter with Cleveland across parts of two seasons after losing
his lone starting assignment with the Arizona Cardinals (against San
Francisco) in 2012.

“He’s not just wildly all over the place,” Pettine said. “At a position where
you need somebody to be rock solid, he’s rock solid, not just from a
performance standpoint, from a demeanor, from a leadership standpoint. He’s
been solid and he’s been consistent. Guys know what they’re going to get from
him.”

He’ll be without starting center Alex Mack this week after the two-time Pro
Bowler broke his left leg against Pittsburgh, ending a streak in which he’d
made every snap since his arrival in 2009.

“You just don’t replace that guy,” Hoyer said.

Defensive end Armonty Bryant is also absent thanks to a significant knee
injury, but the Browns nonetheless will reach the opening whistle on Sunday in
the unusual position of favorite.

And it’s a condition Pettine is happy to see his team have to handle.

“We want to have to deal with being favored in games,” he said. “We want to
have to deal with, ‘Hey, this is a potential trap game for you.’ That’s part
of being a good program is being able to handle all those different
situations.”

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Running Men?

Not surprisingly for a team with no wins in six tries, the Jaguars are
suffering statistically in many areas. Not the least of which is the run game,
where Toby Gerhart is still the leading rusher through six games with just 123
yards and Bortles is just 17 yards off his pace. Rookie Storm Johnson managed
21 yards on 10 tries last week, but he’ll face a team in Cleveland that’s 30th
of 32 teams in stopping the run.

Missing Mack

Missing a multiple Pro Bowl player in Mack doesn’t come at a good time
matchup-wise for the Browns as they visit a defensive unit that’s combined for
19 sacks in six games – tied for second in the league.

Jacksonville has been successful generating pressure from both sides of its
front line, where ends Chris Clemons and Andre Branch each gave three sacks.
Cleveland has allowed six in five games.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

It’s hard to label this a trap game considering the Browns haven’t exceeded
five wins since 2007, but it is certainly a test of just how much progress has
been made in the mini-resurgence.

Cleveland is coming off a big win against a long-time rival and is taking to
the road to face a team that hasn’t won since last December. It’ll need Hoyer
to be the emotional rock that Pettine seems sure that he’s uncovered.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Browns 28, Jaguars 17