Commentary

Joke is on Browns, Bills, Raiders

Originally Published: May 30, 2009
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

Ike TaylorMichael Fabus/Getty ImagesIn dominating Cleveland, the Steelers typically put plenty of heat on Browns quarterbacks.
These Pittsburgh-Cleveland, New England-Buffalo and San Diego-Oakland divisional games are becoming jokes. In each case, the former has beaten the latter 11 straight times, dating to 2003, tying each other for the longest current win streak one team has over another. It's a parody of parity: The Cardinals won the NFC despite not being able to run or play defense; meanwhile, Barack Obama was three years from becoming a U.S. senator the last time the Browns, Bills and Raiders beat those particular division foes.

The winners are already in the losers' heads, of course. The Raiders, Bills and Browns don't know if they can beat these teams because they haven't; not for a while, at least. So how exactly did this ownership of one team happen? And what are the chances of the streak ending this year?

Browns and Steelers

Why the Steelers always win: Pittsburgh has a defense that's harder to read than an Augusta green. Browns quarterbacks -- Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson and Bruce Gradkowski -- have completed only 51 percent of their passes during the losing streak and have been sacked once every 11.4 drop-backs. Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger and other Steelers QBs have hit 60.2 percent, getting sacked almost half as often, once per 19.6 passing plays.

The Steelers "blitz almost every down and get to the quarterback," said a former Brown. "Zone blitzes from everywhere, every down so they confuse you. The Browns run basic coverages and barely go get the quarterback. Not really any pressure at all. So the quarterback can sit back there all day and make his reads."

Chances of the streak ending in 2009: Not good. The Browns' schemes will be better under Eric Mangini, but not enough to faze or frighten the defending champs.

Raiders and Chargers

Why the Chargers always win: San Diego's blitz packages take advantage of Oakland's constantly reshuffled pass protection. Oakland has used 11 different starting offensive line combinations in the 11 losses. Couple that with an offensive playbook that forces quarterbacks to drop deep and hold the ball behind a line that can't protect them in the first place, and you see why Chargers players say privately that the Raiders are a "pad your stats" game. San Diego's substitution packages -- pulling two defensive linemen for linebackers, adding speed -- have accounted for 46 sacks during the winning streak. "The Raiders quarterbacks drop deep, hold the ball, and that always slows them down," said former Chargers DE Igor Olshansky, now a Cowboy. "That's why we had success against them."

Chances of the streak ending in 2009: Better than it appears. The Chargers open against the Raiders, and the past two years have taught us that San Diego is capable of anything during the regular season.

Bills and Patriots

Why the Patriots always win: Nobody adjusts like New England, and the Patriots have beaten the Bills 11 times by a combined score of 321-96 with a variety of schemes and players. In 2007, Tom Brady topped 300 yards in both games. Before last season's finale, the Pats designed a bevy of route combinations to expose backup CB Leodis McKelvin, subbing for injured Jabari Greer. But 30 mph winds and 65 mph gusts changed that plan, and the Pats won with 168 yards rushing, with quarterback Matt Cassel attempting only eight passes. "I played the Bills seven times," said former Patriots fullback Heath Evans, now a Saint, "and every single game plan was drastically different."

Chances of the streak ending in 2009: In theory, the Bills should have the offensive talent to surprise the Patriots, like the Dolphins did last year. But with Brady back, Buffalo might have to surprise the Patriots to the tune of 35-plus points, which would be a little too surprising.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.

Seth Wickersham | email

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.