Although the Browns have won only 18 games since the start of the 2008 season, they’ve managed to establish a tradition of stunning reigning champions during the same span.
Three of those 18 victories, or 17 percent, were against defending Super Bowl champions. The Browns prevailed in their past three meetings against those top-flight teams, and coach Pat Shurmur will get his first chance to extend the streak established by his predecessors.
When it comes to knocking off reigning champions, former Browns coaches Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini are tough acts to follow. Crennel guided the Browns to a 35-14 upset over the Giants in 2008, the season following New York’s first title with quarterback Eli Manning. Then Mangini helped the Browns shock two more defending champions — the Pittsburgh Steelers 13-6 in 2009 and the New Orleans Saints 30-17 in 2010.
But there are at least two obvious differences between those Browns teams and this year’s version: Shurmur’s men are winless (0-4) heading into their showdown against the defending champs, and they’re much younger. The roster is comprised of 27 players who are in their first or second NFL seasons, and the team’s general lack of experience could hurt its chances of catching the Giants (2-2) off guard.
Ralph Vacchiano covers the Giants for the New York Daily News. He discussed the team and its upcoming game against the Browns in the following question-and-answer session:
Q: What’s the attitude of the Giants after their heartbreaking, 19-17 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night?
A: “Honestly, it wasn’t what I was expecting. It was a heartbreaking defeat, but they weren’t down. They were oddly positive, actually. I think they felt they should have won, which helped. They weren’t really disturbed by being 0-2 in the NFC East or any of the problems they had in the game. I guess this team has just been through so much and dug out of so many holes that one game just doesn’t really faze them anymore. Last year they were on the verge of missing the playoffs so many times, and then they won the Super Bowl, so how could they be bothered by being 2-2 in October?”
Q: What’s the latest on wide receiver Hakeem Nicks’ status and how is the Giants’ offense different without him?
A: “The latest on Nicks is that he’s still got a swollen knee, which flared up on him at practice last Thursday. The working theory from the Giants is that he hurt his knee because his body was overcompensating as he tries to recover from offseason foot surgery. They don’t seem to think it’s serious, but you never know. Bottom line: He’s missed two games, and his status is uncertain for this weekend. Since he went out, the Giants have gotten big performances from Ramses Barden and [University of Akron product] Domenik Hixon, so they really haven’t had to change their offense. But Nicks is a special player — more dependable and more explosive than either of those two. His presence also draws double teams, which opens things up for Victor Cruz. Without him, the Giants just aren’t as dangerous, regardless of what they’ve done the last two games.”
Q: Safety Kenny Phillips sprained the MCL in his right knee Sunday. How big of a blow is that to the defense and how will the Giants try to compensate for the loss?
A: “It’s pretty big based off what happened in the Eagles game. When he went down, the Giants lost a big part of their run support game. Also, without him roaming the defensive backfield they weren’t as eager to put their cornerbacks in one-on-one situations. All they had at safety, really, was a gimpy Antrel Rolle (bruised knee) and Stevie Brown, who isn’t in Phillips’ league. They do get second-year safety Tyler Sash back this week (from a four-game suspension), so that’ll help, but they will miss Phillips’ presence. He’s a terrific two-way safety and without him there will be a big hole in the defense for teams to exploit.”
Q: What are the biggest surprises and biggest disappointments for the Giants this season?
A: “Probably the biggest surprise has been how potent their passing attack has been in Nicks’ absence. You would think there would be a huge dropoff without him. And as I pointed out earlier, they do miss him in some ways. But two weeks ago against Carolina, Ramses Barden was unstoppable. He was getting open, getting separation, making defenders miss. Then last week Domenik Hixon stepped up and played nearly as well. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, Victor Cruz was an unproven player until early last season. The Giants’ passing attack just plugs in new pieces and keeps going. The biggest disappointment? The pass rush. The way they played at the end of last season they looked like they had the best defensive front in the NFL — and definitely the best trio of defensive ends. But they haven’t been much of a factor through the first four games. Justin Tuck is even still looking for his first sack.”
Q: In which areas are the Giants vulnerable?
A: “Their biggest area of vulnerability is their secondary. Especially with the pass rush struggling, teams can pass on them, especially if they can create a one-on-one situation somewhere on the field. Their best corner, Corey Webster, is struggling, and they have injury issues pretty much all over the field. Their defense has always been predicated on a strong rush anyway, but without that this year, the secondary has definitely been exposed. Another area is their running game. They had the NFL’s worst rushing attack last season, and it hasn’t been much better this season. The problem is that to exploit that you have to stop Eli Manning and the passing attack and make the Giants run. And that might be impossible to do.”
Read Ralph Vacchiano’s coverage of the Giants at www.nydailynews.com/blogs/giants. Follow him on Twitter: @RVacchianoNYDN. Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj.