Cleveland (4-9) at Denver (8-5)

Partly Cloudy Currently: Denver, CO
Temp: 76° F
  • Game info: 4:05 pm EST Sun Dec 14, 2003
  • TV: CBS
Preview | Box Score | Recap

If the Denver Broncos make the playoffs, it’s clear that Clinton Portis will lead them there.

Portis, coming of three straight outstanding performances, will try to help the Broncos to their fourth win in five games when they host the injury-ravaged Cleveland Browns at Invesco Field.

The Bronsco needed a win against arguably the NFL’s best team Sunday to keep their playoff hopes alive and Portis responded with the finest performance of his career in a 45-27 victory over Kansas City. He carried 22 times for 218 yards—188 in the second half—and matched a team record with five touchdowns as Denver moved into a tie with Miami for the final AFC wild card position.

Portis, last season’s NFL offensive rookie of the year, has 553 yards and seven touchdowns in his past three games, helping Denver go from a nearly hopeless situation to a potential playoff berth. He has improved each week, rushing for 106, 165, 170 and 218 yards the past four games.

“I always admired (Kansas City’s) Priest Holmes. I thought he was the best back in the NFL,” Portis said. “I felt like if I go out and outperform Priest Holmes in head-to-head competition, well, I can’t help but feel like I am the best back in the NFL.”

With 48 yards in the next three games, Portis will join Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James as the only running backs to open their careers with consecutive 1,500-yard seasons. He has 2,960 yards his first two seasons, behind only Dickerson, James and Earl Campbell all-time.

Sunday’s win actually moved Denver ahead of Miami in the race for the last wild card spot because the Broncos have a better conference record. Tennessee is in line for the first wild card, one game ahead of the Broncos and Dolphins.

Denver, however, has a very difficult remaining schedule with its final two games on the road against Indianapolis and Green Bay. Winning their final three games will assure the Broncos of making the playoffs for the first time in three years.

“The next step for us is Cleveland. That’s all we can worry about,” wide receiver Rod Smith said. “We had to have the Kansas City game and we went and got it. We have to have the Cleveland game, so we have to go and get it.”

Although the Broncos were in peak form against one of the league’s top teams on Sunday, they wouldn’t be left scrambling scrambling for a playoff spot if they hadn’t suffered a stunning 19-10 loss at home to Chicago on Nov. 23.

“I can’t say that (there won’t be a repeat of the Chicago game),” Denver linebacker Al Wilson said. “We hope it won’t be, but in this league, any given Sunday. … We just feel that if we prepare well, have a great week of practice, the sky’s the limit for our team.”

After making the playoffs last season, very little has gone as planned for the Browns this season. They have lost three straight and six of seven, including a 26-20 defeat at home to St. Louis in their first regular season appearance on “Monday Night Football” since 1995.

Cleveland’s quarterback carousel turned again Monday when Tim Couch replaced Kelly Holcomb and rallied the Browns after they fell behind 23-7.

Couch, who was 6-of-9 for 98 yards and one TD, will start at Denver. Holcomb said he expects Couch to start the final three games.

“It’s been a wild season, a frustrating season,” Couch said. “It’s been tough not playing and not winning. We have three games left and I just want to finish strong.”

Hit hard by injuries all season, that trend continued Monday for the Browns, who lost defensive end Courtney Brown and three other starters to season-ending injuries.

Brown, the first overall pick in 2000, ruptured his right biceps tendon in the second quarter Monday. Running back James Jackson tore a ligament in his right knee, kicker Phil Dawson broke his left arm and offensive guard Chad Beasley broke his right ankle.

Cleveland is also without running back William Green, who has been indefinitely suspended by the NFL for violating the league’s substance-abuse program.

“We continue to be ravaged by injuries, which is obviously frustrating and disappointing for all of us,” coach Butch Davis said. “I really feel for the players.”

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