ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – What the records would indicate about Sunday's matchup with the 5-9 Browns is the last thing on the minds of the 11-3 Broncos.
After dropping eight of their first 10, Cleveland has won three of its last four games, including a win over a playoff contender in the Pittsburgh Steelers. In addition to knocking off Pittsburgh, the Browns have also defeated the Cincinnati Bengals this season, another team that remains in playoff contention. Cleveland's recent success has grabbed the undivided attention of the Denver locker room.
"They're 3-0 versus our division," Head Coach John Fox said. "They've won three out of four of their last games. Really, that was a close game last week against Washington. They've got good players. I've said all year long, we don't look at team's records, we look at the tape and they're very capable."
The Browns have been led on offense by a pair of 2012 first-round draft picks who were preparing for BCS bowl games at this time a year ago – quarterback Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson. Richardson has enjoyed a strong rookie campaign, delivering on the promise that made him the third overall selection in the draft. Only two players in the league have found the end zone more than Richardson, who has recorded 12 touchdowns – 11 rushing and one receiving – through 14 games.
"He's a great player," Fox said. "He's got a great combination of size, strength and speed… He's a punishing runner and he's a threat as a pass receiver so he's like a lot of the good backs we've seen this year. He's obviously very capable and he's still just a rookie."
Dating back to Week 12, the Broncos have seen a steady diet of quality running backs. This week, Denver takes on yet another stellar back after seeing Jamaal Charles of Kansas City, Doug Martin of Tampa Bay, Darren McFadden of Oakland and Ray Rice of Baltimore in the past month. Richardson presents another challenge that stands out to the Denver defense.
"From a linebacker's standpoint, he most definitely is (the main focus,)" linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "The front seven, we've got to stop the rushing attack. We've got to make sure we shut that down immediately. As soon as they come out, we've got to be the physical group and take it to them."
In Weeden, Richardson is complemented in the Cleveland backfield by a fellow rookie with a background that has helped him avoid many of the typical growing pains of first-year quarterbacks.
"He's a strong-armed, smart guy," Fox said. "He's a little bit older than most rookies, in the sense that he did play pro baseball so he's been around professional athletics. I think his maturity level is pretty high. He is gifted. He's capable of beating you as far as with his feet. When he does scramble, he's been effective. He's got excellent arm strength. Those are the things I know without having coached him."
Defensively, the Browns held four consecutive opponents to 20 or fewer points before Sunday's loss to the Washington Redskins. The Browns defense has intercepted 16 passes, which is tied with Denver and other teams for the seventh-most in the league.
"I'll tell you on defense, they're young, they're active, they're flying around," quarterback Peyton Manning said. "I don't know a whole lot what's going on with their offense but defensively, they're a physical group. They're stout against the run. They can blitz you but they can get all their pressure with four if they have to with the front D-Linemen so that's impressive and they're playing real hard as well."
No one at the Broncos' practice facility knows what the Cleveland defense brings to the table better than safety Mike Adams, who joined Denver in the offseason after spending the previous five seasons a Brown.
"They play hard, that's one thing I can say about the Browns," Adams said. "The defense, they play hard. Their numbers show it, they get a lot of turnovers, they make a lot of tackles with (linebacker) D'Qwell Jackson in the middle. Haden in the corner, an elite corner. They make a lot of plays, so you just can't take these guys lightly."
Adams said he "can't wait" for Sunday's matchup, and although he's the only former Brown on Denver's roster, he plans to make sure his teammates share his respect for the Broncos' next opponent.
"If anybody thinks about taking them lightly, I'll get on them a little bit," Adams said. "We're not taking this game lightly. We have bigger goals. This is the biggest goal right now because it's the next game and it's a big step for us. But we're looking to keep going and continue our streak."