NFL Preview – Indianapolis (8-4) at Cleveland (7-5) (ET)

By John McMullen, NFL Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) – The Indianapolis Colts could be the first NFL team to
clinch a division title in 2014 but they won’t be doing it at the expense of
“Johnny Football.”

Many thought the Colts, who can wrap up the AFC South win a win in Cleveland
on Sunday coupled with a Houston loss at Jacksonville, would be facing a
Browns team with first-round pick Johnny Manziel under center for his first
start.

Instead, Cleveland coach Mike Pettine backtracked Wednesday after a few days
of contemplation and is sticking with the embattled Brian Hoyer, at least for
the time being.

“After thorough evaluation and talking to the staff, we feel Brian gives us
the best opportunity to win on Sunday,” said Pettine. “This is a football
decision and those are always going to be based on what we think is best for
our team.”

Hoyer was benched early in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s 26-10 loss to
the Buffalo Bills and Manziel stepped in to engineer an 8-play, 80-yard drive
that he capped with a 10-yard touchdown scramble.

Manziel ended the game 5-of-8 for 63 yards, forcing the Browns into a critical
decision about the team’s future of the quarterback position.

Hoyer completed just 18-of-30 passes for 192 yards and two interceptions
before being benched. In the past three games, he has thrown only one
touchdown pass and six interceptions.

The Browns are 7-5 heading into Sunday’s contest with the Colts and are tied
with six other teams for the final AFC wild card spot.

“Brian has led our team to a 7-5 record,” Pettine added. “I’m confident that
we can get the entire offense playing at the level needed to accomplish the
goals we set at the beginning of the season. Those goals are still very much
attainable.”

Hoyer, who is 10-5 as Cleveland’s starting quarterback dating back to last
season, has throw for 3,056 yards with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in
12 games this year.

“It wasn’t perfect and he’s made his share of mistakes, but (Hoyer’s) gotten
the lion’s share of reps in practice and virtually all of them in games and
has us in the thick of a playoff hunt,” Pettine said. “That, to me, was
probably the biggest determining factor.”

There is, of course, no such controversy with the Colts as Andrew Luck is
piloting one of the best offenses in all of football.

In fact, Indianapolis scored six touchdowns of at least 30 yards in a 49-27
win over Washington in Week 13, becoming the first team to register at least
six 30-plus touchdowns in a game since 1966 when the Redskins did it in a
72-41 drubbing of the New York Giants.

“We have incredibly explosive players all over the field,” said Luck, who
leads the league with 4,011 passing yards and joined Peyton Manning and Dan
Marino as the only players in NFL history with at least 4,000 passing yards in
two of their first three seasons.

Luck completed 19-of-27 throws against the Redskins for 370 yards and two of
TDs went for more than 70 yards. Coby Fleener hauled in TD passes of 30 and 73
yards, while Donte Moncrief had scoring receptions of 48 and 79 yards in what
was supposed to be a matchup of the top two picks in the 2012 NFL Draft.

Robert Griffin III, the second overall choice in 2012, was benched earlier
in the week by Redskins coach Jay Gruden after three straight losing efforts,
however. Colt McCoy, the winning quarterback in Washington’s last two
victories, threw for 392 yards with three touchdowns, but the Redskins defense
could not stop Luck.

The Colts racked up 487 yards on just 49 plays, an average of 9.9 yards
per play. Dan Herron added to the outburst with 88 yards on just eight
carries, including a 49-yard touchdown run, as Indianapolis notched its second
straight win.

Cleveland holds a slim 14-13 advantage in its all-time series with Indy but
the Colts have won six of the past seven. The two teams haven’t locked up in
the Forest City since 2008, a 10-6 Indianapolis win.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Manziel did provide a spark in a game that was long over last weekend but that
was fool’s gold against a Bills D which took its foot off the gas. Rallying
around the new guy is great but emotion like that can’t be sustained for an
entire football game, never mind a complete playoff push in the month of
December.

A move away from Hoyer would have signaled that the Browns were succeeding
despite Hoyer and fans would have been expecting Manziel to traverse troubled
waters that not only include Luck and the Colts but also division games
against AFC North frontrunner Cincinnati and 7-5 Baltimore over the final
month.

With Hoyer Cleveland probably has a slim chance to make the postseason.
Without him, slim is hopping a cab and is on his way to Hopkins International.

Hoyer’s record as the starter in Cleveland is a number panned only by those
who don’t understand the organization was 20-57 in its previous 77 games
without him.

Moving away from the guy who has won at a .667 clip and moving toward Manziel,
who completed his first NFL pass last week, would have been setting up the
rookie to fail, especially in a matchup against the pure throwing Luck.

“Obviously, that’s a decision that’s made by coach Pettine,” Manziel said.
“And this week his answer was, ‘No’ so moving forward whatever transpires,
maybe next time the answer will be, ‘Yes.'”

Luck not only leads the NFL in passing yards, he is second with 34 TD passes
and also second in the AFC at passer rating with a 103.0 mark. He captains an
offense that is tops in all of football, piling up 438.3 yards per game with
his favorite target being the explosive T.Y. Hilton, who leads the Colts with
a career-high 1,145 receiving yards.

The Indy offense is also No. 1 the NFL with 6.2 yards per play and tops in
explosive plays with 69 garnering over 20 yards.

“Once you throw the ball up for a big play, you want to be that guy,” said
veteran receiver Reggie Wayne, who has 54 catches for 636 yards of his own.
“We had a lot of guys that were able to capitalize on that (Sunday). We got a
lot of guys. We are pretty loaded.”

Things could get even more loaded for Luck with the potential return of tight
end Dwayne Allen, who has missed two games with a balky right ankle.

The best-case scenario for the Browns is to play ball control and keep it out
of Luck’s hands as much as possible and that means getting the running game
going.

With Ben Tate now in Minnesota that means rookies Terrance West (502 yards,
three touchdowns) and Isaiah Crowell (475 yards, seven touchdowns) need to
have an impactful afternoon. Crowell, however, is dealing with a hip injury.

The game will also mark the return of Trent Richardson to Cleveland for the
first time since being traded to the Colts on Sept. 18, 2013. Richardson, who
struggled with the Browns after being the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, hasn’t
done much better with the Colts, amassing only 445 rushing yards at 3.3 yards
per carry this season.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Credit Pettine for coming to his senses and doing his best to alleviate the
rookie coaching mistake he made in Buffalo last weekend.

Cleveland has won four of its past six games and three of its past four at
home but this looks like an untenable matchup because to beat Luck and the
Colts, it almost has to be in a shootout. The Browns are ill-equipped to win
in that fashion just yet. So why not let the veteran Hoyer take the heat?

“I always have a fire lit,” Hoyer said. “Anytime someone questions you, you
want to prove them wrong. I’m sure there are people questioning me all along,
not just this week, throughout the entire season.”

Sports Network predicted outcome: Colts 33, Browns 17