Welcome to Week 7 of the 2021 NFL season. There's a verifiable bye week apocalypse in the NFL this week, but two teams that are not on a bye will square off tonight on "Thursday Night Football" as they look to remain in the playoff race in the AFC.
The 3-3 Cleveland Browns are coming off back-to-back losses to contending teams, while the 3-3 Denver Broncos have lost three straight since starting the season 3-0. Both teams are looking to get back in the win column on Thursday night, and will have to do so while working without a full complement of players.
Can the Browns get back on track, or will the Broncos end their own losing streak? We're glad you asked.
How to watch
When the Broncos have the ball
Teddy Bridgewater was limited in practices throughout the week and listed as questionable for the game, but it seems like he's going to be under center for the Broncos. He has been a considerably better player for them than Drew Lock had been over the previous two years, and they will undoubtedly want to get him under center for this game if they can.
Bridgewater typically does a good job taking care of the ball, but it's notable that he has four interceptions over the last two games since leaving the team's Week 4 loss to the Ravens due to injury. (He had three last week against the Raiders, though two of the three came with Denver down multiple scores in the fourth quarter.) Not giving the ball away is Priority No. 1 for Vic Fangio, but Bridgewater has also done a better job than usual of pushing the ball down the field -- even with Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler sidelined for much of the season.
The Broncos still have Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, and Noah Fant out in routes more often than not, and that should test a Browns defense that is banged up at the moment. Rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is set to miss this game and several more, while Malcolm Smith and Mack Wilson are listed as questionable. Each of the Browns' top three corners were on the injury report throughout this week (albeit while mostly practicing fully), and Jadeveon Clowney is questionable after being limited with ankle, knee, and chest injuries. They should be able to at least get most of those guys on the field for this matchup, but several of them have already been in and out of games with various ailments this year, and having to play on a short week exacerbates the chance of aggravation.
If the Browns can keep their top guys on the field, they should have a pretty good chance of causing problems for Denver's offense, which has yet to top 27 points in any game this season and is averaging just 16.7 per game during its current three-game losing streak. Myles Garrett and Clowney, along with Malik Jackson and Malik McDowell, are causing all kinds of problems for opponents up front, and Bridgewater has been pressured more than 5% more often than the league average passer so far this season, according to TruMedia.
The Browns utilize a dead-even split backfield, with Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams rotating in and out throughout the game. Gordon has 70 carries at an average of 4.7 yards and pop and Williams has 65 at 4.6 per tote, while they have 16 and 15 targets, respectively. The Browns have done very well stopping the run so far this year (third in Football Outsiders' rush defense DVOA and sixth in Adjusted Line Yards allowed), though, so the Broncos would be wise to test out the back end of the defense with their receiving corps rather than leaning on the two backs to do the lion's share of chain-moving.
When the Browns have the ball
Does anybody know who is actually going to be on the field for the Browns offense in this game?
Baker Mayfield is out. Odell Beckham Jr. seems like he's trending toward being out. Jarvis Landry may not be ready to return. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are out. It's somewhere between possible and probable that each of Jedrick Wills Jr., Jack Conklin, and JC Tretter will miss the game. Mayfield is the only one of those players who practiced on Tuesday, and he was ruled out on Wednesday anyway.
This offense is going to revolve around, I guess, backup quarterback Case Keenum, third-string running back D'Ernest Johnson, hybrid back Demetric Felton, second-year wideout Donovan Peoples-Jones, rookie receiver Anthony Schwartz, and the team's three tight ends? (And even David Njoku has been limited in practices this week.) I have zero idea what to expect from a group like that, though I suppose we will probably see them work in Kevin Stefanski's zone-heavy run game and play-action-heavy passing concepts. How effective any of that will be is anybody's guess.
Von Miller has already signaled his intent to kill whomever the Browns use to block him and while we here at CBSSports.com cannot and do not condone on-field murder, it might be fun to watch him try to wreck the entire offensive game plan by himself.
Prediction: Broncos 20, Browns 10