CHARGERS (2-2) at BROWNS (2-2)
When: 10 a.m. Sunday
Where: FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland
TV/Radio: Ch. 2; 98.7 FM/105.5 FM/94.3 FM (Spanish)
Line: Chargers by 2½
Notable injury designations: Chargers: WR Keenan Allen (out, hamstring), K Dustin Hopkins (questionable, quad), WR Joshua Palmer (questionable, ankle). Browns: DT Taven Bryan (questionable, hamstring), DE Jadeveon Clowney (questionable, ankle).
What’s at stake: The Chargers got the feel-good victory they needed last week over the Houston Texans, re-establishing their running game and ending their two-game losing streak. But they’ll face a more difficult challenge when they meet the Browns in Cleveland, a more dangerous team than the Texans. The Chargers can’t approach this game with the same sense of urgency as last week. They’re going to have to take it up a few notches if they hope to win their second in a row and move above .500.
Who’s better: Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson will serve the fifth game of an 11-game suspension agreed upon by the NFL and the players association in the wake of allegations by more than two dozen women of sexual assault. Jacoby Brissett has replaced Watson and been quite effective – not as effective as Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, but effective nonetheless. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt provide the Browns with a standout one-two punch in the backfield, and the Chargers will be tested. The Chargers have been much improved against the run to start this season, but they have given up long runs in each of the past three games, including a 75-yard touchdown run by Houston’s Dameon Pierce last week.
Matchup to watch: Chubb rushed for 118 yards and one TD in the Browns’ victory last week over the Atlanta Falcons. Hunt had 61 yards rushing and 28 yards receiving the last time the Chargers and Browns met. So the Chargers shouldn’t be surprised if the Browns come out determined to establish their running game. The Chargers defensive line, with assists from their linebackers and defensive backs, must at least slow down Chubb and Hunt while maintaining a sharp eye on Brissett and top receiver Amari Cooper.
Chargers win if: The Chargers finally showed off a better mix of passing and running in their victory over the Texans. If they can do it again against the Browns, they’ll be tough to beat. Herbert topped 300 yards for the seventh consecutive road game by throwing for 340 yards and two touchdowns against Houston. He can tie Rich Gannon (2001-02) as the only quarterbacks in league history with eight consecutive games with 300 yards or more on the road if he continues his streak against the Browns.
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Fantasy sleeper(s): Tight end Donald Parham Jr. sat out the first four games of the season because of a hamstring injury, but will be back on the field against Cleveland. Gerald Everett has been a favorite target of Herbert’s while Parham has been sidelined. Everett had five receptions for 61 yards and a touchdown against Houston. He has had 50 yards or more in three of four games so far. Bottom line: Herbert will be looking for his tight ends again Sunday.
Prediction: The Chargers seemed to discover a few things about themselves in Week 4, especially when it came to Herbert learning how to deal with the fractured rib cartilage he suffered in the Week 2 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Assuming he suffers no setbacks, the Chargers should defeat the Browns. Chargers 35, Browns 31.