NFL Preview - Cleveland (6-4) at Atlanta (4-6) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - Guess who's back, back again?
Josh Gordon's back, tell a friend.
In words similar to Eminem's hit "Without Me," the Cleveland Browns will welcome back the talented wide receiver this week after he served a 10-game, league-imposed suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
It may have felt empty without Gordon, but he will be back with the Browns when they visit the Atlanta Falcons Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
"Obviously Josh is a phenomenal player ... set records last year with only 14 games, so I think everybody has high expectations for him," Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer said.
Gordon, who has stirred up controversy the past few months and was limited during his ban to strength and conditioning work at the team's facility, had his suspension reduced in September after the NFL and the NFL Players Association introduced the finalized agreement to changes in their substance abuse and performance enhancing substances policies.
"I just want to display some hard work and effort, not only me but try to get that atmosphere throughout the rest of the team and have us be in a position that the city of Cleveland hasn't been in a long time," Gordon said.
Cavaliers superstar LeBron James is trying to beat Gordon to that.
Beset by off-the-field problems since his college days, Gordon led the NFL with 1,646 yards on 87 catches during a breakout campaign last season, setting Browns season records for receiving yards and 100-yard receiving games (7) as well as a new NFL mark for most yards receiving over a four-game stretch (774).
While many believe the return of Gordon will inject life back into Cleveland, Hoyer said to let things fall into place.
"I think the biggest thing I can tell you guys is look, we all know what Josh is capable of, but let's not put all this pressure on him that he's going to be this savior," Hoyer said. "We all have to play better on offense. We have to be more consistent."
Hoyer and the Browns are coming off Sunday's 23-7 home loss to the Houston Texans. The Browns had won three straight and five of six games, but are still in the hunt for an AFC North title at 6-4. Pittsburgh is on the bye this week and sits atop the division at 7-4. Cincinnati is next with a 6-3-1 record and both the Browns and Baltimore are even.
Browns leading receiver Andrew Hawkins (601 yards, 2 TD) said he "can't wait" to have Gordon back even though he may not get as many targets. Head coach Mike Pettine is taking a cautionary approach.
"Josh is an elite receiver, he's proven that, but you have to be very smart with how you handle him," Pettine said. "We really won't know until the week goes on where he is mentally, where he is physically, how ready he is, how he'll be able to contribute to our offense ... We have to understand the circumstances."
The Browns were decent enough on offense without Gordon, but came up empty versus the Texans. Now they're scheduled to play two straight and four of the last six games away from home, starting Sunday against a dangerous Falcons team inside the Georgia Dome.
"The meaningful games come at the end of November and December," said Hoyer, who is 9-4 in 13 starts with Cleveland.
Atlanta finally found success on the road in back-to-back wins at Tampa Bay and Carolina, and will try to stop a two-game home losing streak Sunday.
The Falcons squeezed out a 19-17 win over the NFC South-rival Panthers last weekend, as Matt Bryant nailed a 44-yard field goal with about two minutes remaining in the game after Carolina stormed back behind two touchdown passes from Cam Newton.
Matt Ryan passed for 268 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions for the Falcons, who are tied with New Orleans for the division lead at 4-6.
"It's been a different year for sure, but you play to be relevant in November and December," said Ryan. "I think we've played pretty effective football and I think things are starting to come together here."
Ryan led the Falcons on a 12-play, 54-yard drive to set up Bryant's field goal and completed five passes for 43 yards during the march. Ryan also led the Falcons on a game-winning drive against the Buccaneers.
The Falcons will have to get by without all-purpose back Antone Smith after he suffered a broken leg against Carolina. Smith had two rushing scores and three receiving TDs this season. Also, starting cornerback Robert Alford is expected to miss a few week because of a wrist injury. Robert McClain is expected to fill the void in the defensive backfield.
"I think Robert's got some experience over the last couple years. Last year with us, he ended up playing our nickel; he's going to now have to step in, for a short period of time, and play the corner position," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. "Robert's an experienced guy that studies the game extremely hard, and we anticipate that he'll go out there and get the job done."
Alford and safety Kemal Ishmael have three interceptions apiece this season.
The Brown have dominated Atlanta all-time to the tune of 10-3, but lost the previous meeting by a 20-10 score on Oct. 10, 2010. Ryan threw for 187 yards and a touchdown on 16-of-28 passing, while Roddy White caught five passes for 101 yards and a score. Falcons defensive end Kroy Biermann returned an interception for a score in that one.
Cleveland is 5-1 as the guest against the Falcons.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Falcons are last in passing yards allowed at 281.2 yards per game and managed to survive against Carolina. Panthers rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin had 109 yards and a touchdown on nine catches, while tight end Greg Olsen finished with 61 yards.
With Gordon's return to the Browns and the Falcons minus a starting defensive back, Smith was asked if he thinks the receiver will be up to speed.
"Absolutely I do. They've stated that they want to get him out on the field as quickly as possible," Smith said. "He's a game changer; he's a guy that with ball in his hands he can make plays. So we're anticipating that we're going to get a full dose of him this week."
They'll also get plenty of looks at Hawkins, who leads Cleveland with 45 catches. Atlanta won't see running back Ben Tate, who was released Tuesday after reportedly not being happy with his playing time. Tate was third on the team with 333 yards, second with 106 carries and second in TDs with four.
"With all the transactions we make while constructing our roster, it will always be our intent to do what is best for our football team," Browns general manager Ray Farmer said in a statement on the club's website. "This move is no different and we wish Ben the best going forward."
Terrence West leads the Browns with 408 yards on 112 carries and three scores, while Isaiah Crowell has a team-best five rushing scores and 358 yards on 78 touches. The Falcons are 24th in rushing yards allowed (122.2). Cleveland registered just 58 yards on the ground last week versus Houston.
The Browns will be without two defensive stars in inside linebacker and leading tackler Karlos Dansby (73 tackles, 3 sacks) and outside LB Jabaal Sheard (36 tackles, 2 sacks). Dansby is expected to miss about a month of action with a knee injury sustained versus the Texans.
Pettine said it's a shame to lose Dansby because of his leadership both on and off the field, and for how well he'd been playing in recent weeks. His intensity, energy and leadership will be missed for a few weeks. Craig Robertson is expected to step in for Dansby and call defensive plays, a tough job for anyone in this league.
"The guys love Craig. They love him," Browns defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil said. "He's a guy that brings it every day. I love his energy."
Sheard is most likely done for the season with an injured bone in his foot. Barkevious Mingo played alongside sack leader (6) Paul Kruger against the Texans and will take over for Sheard. Mingo has 29 tackles and one sack this season and posted seven stops Sunday.
The Browns will have their hands full defensively against Falcons running back Steven Jackson and a host of others. They are 30th in run defense, allowing 142.1 yards per game. Cleveland is solid against the pass, giving up 230.2 yards per game, and has two players with at least four INTs: Tashaun Gipson (6) and Buster Skrine (4).
Don't forget about Joe Haden or Donte Whitner either.
Atlanta has Julio Jones and White to test Cleveland's secondary. White surpassed the 10,000-yard receiving mark and is one touchdown shy of tying Michael Turner (61) for the franchise record.
Sunday's game has big playoff implications for both the Falcons and Browns, but it's especially vital for the visitors. Atlanta can still lose and have life for a division title. A Cleveland loss in the jumbled AFC North creates an uncomfortable issue for Pettine's team.
The Falcons, though, won't lose Sunday and will win another close one behind "Matty Ice." Ryan has led Atlanta to back-to-back road wins and will be in his own sandbox Sunday, as he sports a 38-11 record at the Dome. He is 17-9 in his career against the AFC.
"Our goal was to go to Carolina and get the win; we were able to get that accomplished," Smith said. "It was hard fought, there's a lot of football to be played, but we are aware of where we are. Our goal is to continue to improve. We've got some young guys that started getting significant playing time at different positions across the board. I think that they're improving. I think everybody?s aware of what we need to do this week."
Sports Network predicted outcome: Falcons 26, Browns 21