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The Winless Browns Are Playing Winning Football

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Fans of this site know my handicapping style relies on data, facts over emotion. Digging beneath the surface allows you to profit from what the drunken SportsCenter observer misses. This approach, with a bit of luck, may lead you to success against the vaunted Vegas Point Spread.

So let’s take a look under the hood of the Cleveland Browns. Ohhh the Browns. Two weeks into the season and they’re already among the league’s winningest teams. Wait; Cleveland and winning? That’s not a mistake. The Brownies are among only 8 teams still undefeated against the point spread, but they’re the only team without a straight up win to go with it. What’s behind the team’s ability to come so close to outright victory, falling just short? Might the Browns be playing winning football that circumstances haven’t allowed for straight up success? Let’s jump in.

NFL Teams 2-0 ATS (ranked by avg. ATS margin)

  1. LA Rams +17
  2. Tampa Bay +13.5
  3. Kansas City +11.5
  4. Cincinnati +10
  5. Miami +9.5
  6. Jacksonville +7.8
  7. Cleveland +5.2
  8. Chicago +4

The spread, by definition, is the market’s expectations. So when a team covers the spread, they’re exceeding expectations. Cleveland has exceeded expectations twice without outscoring their opponents a single time. Noteworthy, considering the betting markets pegged them as a 6-win squad just two weeks ago. But context must be considered in this short season, as Cleveland opened 2018 hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team many consider Super Bowl-bound. This past Sunday, the Browns traveled to the Superdome for a date with Drew Brees and company. Any other franchise might write off this pair of losses as a rough start in a grueling NFL season, but Cleveland’s reputation precedes it, and thus the panic button can be heard across the world of sports.

So How About Defense?

If the Browns are to finally buck their double-digit losing ways, it will be done on the defensive side of the ball. This is an area where the front office has invested countless 1st-round picks, taking pass-rushers Danny Shelton and Miles Garrett to pressure the QB in a QB-driven league. So far in 2018, Cleveland’s defense has held Hall of Famers Ben Reothlisberger and Drew Brees both to 21 points per game, and ranking ahead of Minnesota and Denver in Team Defense. At 5.1 Yards Per Play, the Browns are good for 8th in the NFL in what pro bettors consider to be the most important metric. So far so good.

The King of Takeaways

Ultimately, the team that wins the turnover battle covers the spread (and wins) %70 of the time. And the Browns have been very good in this regard. Against the Steelers, the Browns’ secondary picked off Big Ben 3 times and scooped up 3 fumbles to go with it. Then the Browns grabbed 2 more fumbles from Saints’ wideouts Ted Ginn Jr. and Michael Thomas. League-wide, Cleveland is 1st in the NFL in Turnover Margin, 1st in Takeaways, and 4th-best in Giveaways. An opportunistic defense and safe QB play should allow Cleveland to continue hanging in games and is good reason for optimism in northeast Ohio.

Kickers Are People, Too

Kicking has been abysmal this season to the point where bettors need to be aware of a team’s kicking situation before reaching into the wallet.  The guys over at The Ringer power-rated some of the worst kicking blunders from the past few years, and Cleveland’s Zane Gonzalez landed 2nd on their list for his failures last Sunday. With the Browns up 9 in the 3rd quarter, Gonzalez missed the PAT which would’ve extended the lead to 10. He then missed an opportunity to slam the door shut on the Saints with a 44-yarder a minute into the 4th quarter. After a brief Saints rally, Tyrod Taylor put Gonzalez in position to take the lead with his PAT–which he missed. At 40% Cleveland was ranked 29th in the league in Kicking Accuracy, a mark which should improve with the signing of FAU’s Greg Joseph (who was perfect in the preseason). If I’m forced to make a wager, I’d forecast a marked improvement in the accuracy of whoever is kicking field goals for Cleveland going forward.

Are the Browns headed for double-digit wins this year? My best guess is a resounding no. Until they create a culture that expects to win on a weekly basis, the playoffs are a distant goal. But when you stack it all up–solid defense, healthy ball protection, and a kicking game that can only go up–I expect Cleveland to be competitive in many of their remaining games. And with a Prime Time matchup hosting Sam Darnold’s Jets, my expectation is for a hungry and focused Browns team to hit the field on Thursday Night Football and earn their first win. I will add Cleveland -3 into my pocket as we look for an opportunistic defense to pounce on the mistake-prone Jets signal-caller.

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