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Cleveland Browns head to Mile High City to face Denver Broncos in clash of AFC's hottest

DENVER — Sean Payton's first season with the Denver Broncos seemed headed toward disaster.

In Week 3, the Broncos went to South Florida without a win and didn't come close to changing that in a 70-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Even after they won their first game under Payton the following week in Chicago, they dropped their next two to fall 1-5 on the season.

A funny thing, though, happened to the Broncos. They figured some things out. Quarterback Russell Wilson found a new life in Payton's offense and their defense found a way to get all of the turnovers to help them put together a four-game win streak.

"The whole team, I feel like these last four or five games, it's kind of like a new team," Browns linebacker Sione Takitaki said this week. "Won their last four. I tip our hats to those guys, the coaches and the players for turning it around."

That win streak has made Denver the hottest team in the AFC, while also improving it to 5-5. The second-hottest team in the AFC, though, is coming to the Mile High City on Sunday.

Browns linebacker Sione Takitaki (44) celebrates with linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (6) after intercepting a pass during the second half against the Arizona Cardinals Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, in Cleveland.
Browns linebacker Sione Takitaki (44) celebrates with linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (6) after intercepting a pass during the second half against the Arizona Cardinals Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, in Cleveland.

That would be Takitaki's Browns, whose three-game win streak is tied with the Houston Texans. Unlike the Broncos, they didn't stumble out of the gates, which is why they're 7-3.

However, the Browns have dealt with a different hill to overcome — season-ending injuries to running back Nick Chubb, quarterback Deshaun Watson, right tackle Jack Conklin and safety Rodney McLeod.

Those injuries haven't derailed the Browns from being a half-game behind the Baltimore Ravens in AFC North race. They also currently hold the top AFC wild card spot.

"Again, (Browns coach Kevin Stefanski's) had some adversity with injuries," Payton told Denver area reporters this week. "It’s a completely different opponent than last week relative to what they do on both sides of the ball and even in the kicking game. This is an important week.”

That's especially true given the fact both teams are in the AFC. That adds a little extra weight to the game, specifically when it comes to playoff tiebreakers.

The Browns are currently 5-2 against AFC opponents, including wins their last two weeks against the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. That also includes the last non-divisional AFC road game in which they played, back in Week 7 at the Indianapolis Colts.

The Colts game was played semi-indoors, although it was plenty cold on the field with the roof open for the game. This week, it's not just cold — something that really shouldn't impact a team from Cleveland — but also the mile-high altitude the Browns will have to deal with in Denver.

“Yeah, it's kind of one of those things where you just got to be in shape all year, no matter where you play, you're going to be tired no matter what," Takitaki said. "So staying in shape, that's the thing. Hydration, doing all the right things leading up to it, but I would say no different than any other game. A little more altitude, but just being in shape to be honest.”

Individual matchup of the game: Cleveland Browns LT Geron Christian vs. Denver Broncos OLB Nik Bonitto

Jets quarterback Zach Wilson is sacked by Broncos linebacker Nik Bonitto during the first half Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023, in Denver.
Jets quarterback Zach Wilson is sacked by Broncos linebacker Nik Bonitto during the first half Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023, in Denver.

Christian has settled in very well at left tackle the last two games since Jedrick Wills Jr. went on injured reserve with a sprained MCL. He did have some issues with pass blocking two weeks ago against the Ravens' edge rushers, but was very good against Pittsburgh's Alex Highsmith. This week, Christian's challenge comes in the form of one of arguably the best Broncos front-seven players in Bonitto. Bonitto is tied with fellow outside linebacker Jonathan Cooper for the team lead in sacks with 5.5. He leads Denver in tackles for loss with nine, while he's tied with defensive end Zach Allen for quarterback hits with 15. Christian needs to keep Dorian Thompson-Robinson's blindside clean for the Browns offense to have a chance to allow its rookie quarterback to build off career start No. 2 this past Sunday.

Position group matchup of the game: Cleveland Browns cornerbacks vs. Denver Broncos receivers

Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II runs for a touchdown after an interception against the Ravens during the second half Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023, in Baltimore.
Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II runs for a touchdown after an interception against the Ravens during the second half Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023, in Baltimore.

This became an even more important matchup on Friday when the Browns announced that cornerback Denzel Ward, who was having as good a season as any corner in the league, would be out with a shoulder injury. Their other two regular cornerbacks, Greg Newsome II and Martin Emerson Jr., are both very good players. The question is more about when the Browns go to a three-corner look against the Broncos. Does Newsome slide inside and Mike Ford Jr. play outside, or the reverse of that. Beyond that is just the challenge of facing quality pass catchers such as Courtland Sutton and Jerry Juedy. While the Broncos' recent success is as much tied to their running game as it is to Wilson getting it to Sutton and Juedy, the Browns can't, as the kids say, allow Russ to start cooking.

Coaching matchup of the game: Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz vs. Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton

One is one of the top defensive minds in the game. The other is one of the top offensive minds in the game. Both have decades of experience coaching in the NFL, with plenty of success wrapped within those decades. Allow Payton, who calls the plays for the Broncos, to speak about Schwartz: “He’s been in the league a long time. He’s done a great job wherever he’s been. There are some things that are consistent, maybe. We’ve looked at Philly film. I think there’s only one goal line snap with this defense. When you hit the cutups and you go to the red zone — I’m used to looking at the 1-yard line, the 2-yard line. I get to the 7-yard line, and I might be at play 18 on the season. I got to the 7-yard line after like six plays last night. Teams have not gotten in. That’s how well they play defensively. There are some wrinkles, and there are some things that are different. There are a few patterns that you see that make a lot of sense.”

Chris Easterling can be reached at ceasterling@thebeaconjournal.com. Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/browns. Follow him on Twitter at @ceasterlingABJ

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Browns meet Broncos in Mile High clash between AFC's hottest teams