Browns at Cowboys -- Week 11
Where: Cowboys Stadium, Dallas (synthetic turf, retractable roof)
When: Sunday, 1 p.m., ET (CBS)
Spread: Cowboys by 7 1/2
Records: Browns (Overall: 2-7, AFC North 1-3), Cowboys (Overall: 4-5, NFC East 2-1)
Past results: Two most recent regular-season meetings: Sept. 7, 2008: Cowboys 28, Browns 10; Sept. 19, 2004: Cowboys 19, Browns 12. Series record: Browns lead 15-11 (2-1 in three straight years in playoffs -- 1967-1969)
What matters: This is the first game of the rest of the season – nothing more and nothing less. The Browns have been thrust yet again into the role of spoiler while determinations will be made on the future of individual players and coaches. Many believe new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner will keep a sharp eye on coach Pat Shurmur while others offer it has already been determined that he will be packing his bags at season's end. It has been said that game tape is a player's resume. Many Browns players, including quarterback Brandon Weeden, are playing for their jobs. This team must prove in the final seven games that it can finish. Nearly every defeat has had the same plot line: Browns fall behind, come back, hang around well into the fourth quarter and find a way to lose. They must learn to make plays with the outcome of games hanging in the balance.
Who matters: The secondary will be under the gun in this one. The Cowboys provide no opportunity to dismiss the threat of any receiver when they trot WRs Miles Austin and Dez Bryant and TE Jason Witten onto the field. The Browns will be hard-pressed to cover Witten with a linebacker, which could result in SS T.J. Ward hanging with him most of the game. CBs Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown must prevent Austin from taking them deep and receive help over the top from FS Usama Young. After getting burned by the deep throw early in the year, the Browns have shut it down in recent weeks and played strong overall defense. But it comes as no surprise to Browns fans that the offense broke down at about the same time. Weeden and his receivers must get on the same page, particularly in the red zone, where they paid five visits last week in their last game against Baltimore and came away with five Phil Dawson field goals.
Key matchups: LT Joe Thomas vs OLB/DE DeMarcus Ware. Thomas is having another Pro Bowl season and must continue his fine play against one of the most feared pass rushers in the game. Thomas has been equally effective against bull rushers and speed rushers. Ware boasts excellent strength, but has made a living with his quickness and speed on both inside and outside rushes. Ware could line up on the other side as well and test blossoming RT Mitchell Schwartz, but look for Thomas to receive the bulk of the snaps against him. SS T.J. Ward vs. TE Jason Witten. Ward should not struggle against Witten's speed or mobility, but the veteran tight end tends to use his body to shield defenders from the ball and his size to make catches. Witten set an NFL record for a tight end with 18 receptions three weeks ago against the Giants, so he remains one of the top threats at his position in the NFL. Ward is stronger against the run and is among the surest tacklers in the league, but has also improved in coverage, as he showed in shutting down Chargers TE Antonio Gates three weeks ago. This should be a strong matchup and one that will play a huge role in deciding the outcome of the game.
Injuries of note: The Browns are as healthy as they've been all season. Haden missed practice on Thursday with an oblique injury, but is expected to play. This game will mark the 2012 debut of the inside duo of DTs Ahtyba Rubin (calf) and Phil Taylor (pectoral surgery). The two weigh in at a combined 665 pounds and specialize in stopping the run, which bodes well if Cowboys featured back DeMarco Murray remains out.
Inside stuff: Dawson is returning to his home state for this game and will have friends and family in the stands. Dawson never blows his own horn, but must be at least a bit perturbed that he's never been voted into the Pro Bowl. If it doesn't happen this year – barring an unforeseen collapse in performance – it might never happen. Dawson is 17 of 17 in field goal attempts this season and his only miss from 50 yards or longer in his last 12 tries was due to a botched snap. But the sole criteria used by voters seems to be points scored and the Browns simply never give Dawson enough chances to record big numbers.
Connections: Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan served the same role for the Browns under coach Eric Mangini in 2009 and 2010. Dallas FB Lawrence Vickers spent five years with the Browns from 2006 to 2010. Cowboys DL Kenyon Coleman played with the Browns in 2009 and 2010. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett prepped at University School in the ritzy Cleveland suburb of Hunting Valley.
Stat you should know: RB Trent Richardson leads the team with 31 first down conversions this season. That nearly doubles the number racked up by WR Josh Gordon, who is second with 16. … The Browns registered eight sacks in their first two games and just 12 in their last seven games. … The Browns recovered 10 fumbles in the first six games and none in the last three. … Johnson Bademosi leads the team with 11 special teams tackles and seven solos. … Gordon is still leading the NFL at 21.9 yards per catch, but is averaging just 2.1 receptions a game.
Looking ahead: The Browns return home next week to play Pittsburgh. The game will again be considered a rivalry only in the eyes of Cleveland fans, but a win would lift their spirits. It would seem unlikely that battered Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger will be available, which would certainly give the Browns a better chance to pull off an upset.
Prediction: Cowboys 27, Browns 17.
Stay dialed in on the Cleveland Browns on Twitter @CBSBrowns throughout the season with on-site updates from CBSSports.com RapidReports correspondent Marty Gitlin.