A Romp in Nashville. Playoffs Guaranteed. What is the Ceiling?

The Cleveland Browns’ win in Nashville Sunday, the franchise’s biggest since 2007, changed the narrative. They’re no longer beating up on poor teams, or a benefactor of a weak schedule. If Baker Mayfield can sling it for the rest of the season the way he did Sunday, they can rattle the top AFC teams in January. A strong running game, offensive line, and opportunistic defense mask the deficiencies. But to win, to push the fervid offenses in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Kansas City, they must score. They’ll need premium Mayfield.

Four touchdowns in the first half, a first for the franchise since Otto Graham. 38 points, most in a half in franchise history. The numbers are real. Mayfield is the only quarterback in the league this season to throw 4 touchdown passes in a half, and he’s done it twice (2nd half, Week 7, Cincinnati). His look off of the defense before coming back to Jarvis Landry on the 1st TD was sublime.

The throw to Donovan Peoples-Jones on the drive earlier, one in which he dropped, was an excellent read. He had Jones in the slot on the right side of the field, 1-on-1 with a linebacker. A trio of tight ends on his left drew 4 defenders. With the middle of the field vacant, Mayfield threw on time and on target, but the pass was dropped. The read was on point, however, as was his throw. Growth.

If Mayfield continues to make these throws…..

And Kevin Stefanski continues to put Baker in positions to succeed. Since entering the league, Mayfield has excelled on the move and off play action. 9-10 for 173 yards and 3 TDs on play action Sunday, the demolishing Cleveland run game forces defenses to protect the box. Tennessee’s defense ranked 31st against play action coming into Sunday and got worse. Credit Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt for playing into their strengths and the opponent’s shortcomings. It’s a critical difference this season, one vital to the wins. Calling plays that give your players the greatest chance of success, as opposed to forcing a system on them that plays to their worst tendencies. A novel concept.

Aside from the quarterback, the game shifted in the 1st quarter on two defensive plays, both made by Sheldon Richardson on Derrick Henry. Stuffed on 4th and 1 in Cleveland territory on their 1st drive, Henry fumbled on Tennessee’s second, allowing a scorching Mayfield to propel the Browns to a quick 17-0 lead. Burying run first offenses early mounts pressure on those teams, forcing them into alignments they’d rather avoid. While Ryan Tannehill has impressed, he isn’t a throw first quarterback. He won’t win many coming from 17 down. The Browns will need to mimic the strategy next Monday night against Baltimore.

The 4th down stop was mammoth. Richardson skirted his blocker before going low, tripping Henry short of the marker. Tennessee’s offense established themselves on the opening drive, looking capable of putting the Browns in an early hole. But Richardson changed the momentum, getting the ball back to his offense by causing a Henry fumble on drive two. These are plays Cleveland’s defense must make over the next two months. They aren’t talented enough to stop teams, but they’re ball hawkish. The defense can’t get run over. They have to invent ways to get off the field.

While the Ravens have begun the healing process from their COVID outbreak, one can only guess as to their readiness after dealing with the virus. Can Newton struggled after being diagnosed. Myles Garrett complained of a lack of stamina after returning from a two-week absence caused by it. Lamar Jackson returned for last night’s game, and seven others who missed the Pittsburgh contest played in their win. While the Monday night game gives them another day, Baltimore’s schedule has been frenzied. The Browns must be the better prepared team next week.

The Ravens’ defense lacks obvious weaknesses (3rd in points allowed, 12th against the run, 10th vs. the pass), but their run defense is more fragile than it appears. They allow 4.5 yards per carry (21st). Nick Chubb leads running backs, averaging 6 yards per attempt. Kareem Hunt rushes for 4.5 per tote. They can burn this Baltimore defense on the ground. The offense needs opportune completions from Mayfield, but the fulcrum of the offense is in the backfield. The Ravens get pressure on the quarterback and have an elite set of cornerbacks in Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, and Jimmy Smith. They don’t allow points because of their front four and back seven. Don’t let these guys beat you.

The idea on defense is simple: make Lamar Jackson throw the ball. Jackson’s passing stats have drifted from the numbers he posted in last year’s MVP season. Jackson hits open receivers, yet he struggles to fit the football into tight windows and toils more when the game is in the balance. Pressure will be important, but putting the Ravens QB on the ground won’t be. The Cleveland front four, with help from the linebacking core, must keep him in the pocket. Take away the Ravens running game and keep Jackson from getting into the secondary with his legs. Baltimore’s season has been jerky; they can’t seem to find a rhythm, whether because of COVID, Jackson’s sporadic play, or high expectations. All are factors, and the Ravens aren’t as good as they were in 2019. They’re fighting for their playoff lives, however, and are still a paramount organization with a Hall of Fame head coach. If Cleveland can win at home on Monday night, they become the 3rd best team in the AFC, and playoff hopes will skyrocket.

The Whip Around

1.One play left in the game. Team leading by 4. Opposition is 46 yards from the end zone. For any other defensive coordinator, the call is to drop 8-9 guys deep, build an umbrella, and knock the Hail Mary pass to the ground. For Gregg Williams, this is a chance to prove again that you’re the smartest guy in the room. The Jets lost Sunday, assuring an 0-16 season. It’ll be the 2nd 0fer Williams has had a hand in. A buffoon, Williams, central to the Saints Bounty Gate fiasco 10 years ago, somehow kept getting hired by the good ole boys in the NFL. Williams rushed 7 on the last play against the Raiders, leaving 3 corners in 1 on 1 coverage. He even had a spy on QB Derek Carr, instead of a safety deep to, you know, protect against the 1 play that can get you beat. Goodbye, Gregg Williams. Here’s hoping to never see your smug face on an NFL sideline again.

2. Hail to the Washington Football Team. The only team in the NFC East with a positive point differential, the WFT, with Alex Smith at quarterback, looks competent. Smith, efficient as ever, doesn’t turn the ball over and moves the sticks, without a running game, to score enough for his outstanding defense. While Pittsburgh’s defensive numbers have waned throughout the season, Washington has surged, creating an argument for best D in the league. Third against the pass and tenth stopping the run, they may be the most complete defense. Their 36 sacks rank 3rd, but with no one having over 6, their pass rush is a team effort. The division remains sketchy, but at least Washington and the Giants have played decent football over the past few weeks.

3. Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes? With Russell Wilson struggling, the MVP race becomes centered on the QBs of two of the hottest teams in the league. Almost identical counting stats won’t separate them, so voters will have to dig deeper. Mahomes has better weapons and pilots the Super Bowl favorites. He’s flashier. The elder Rodgers has been around, boring the league with his greatness, a la LeBron James. If you’re voting for the best player, the answer is likely Mahomes. But the one who’s doing the most with the least, who’s team would be out of the playoff race without him, is Rodgers.

4. Every week he makes another miraculous catch. It’s time to consider Davante Adams the best wide receiver in the league.

5. Seattle, and Russell Wilson, have hit the wall. The defense has struggled all season, now Wilson is average instead of great. The results? Losers of 3 of 5, the Giant loss on Sunday, to a team led by Colt McCoy, stings more than road losses to playoff contenders Buffalo and Los Angeles. Now trailing the division to the Rams, the Seahawks need to fix Wilson, soon. Only 6 touchdowns, as opposed to 5 interceptions, over the last 5 games, Wilson is under a constant state of pressure. He’s gotten sacked 21 times in those games while losing 4 fumbles. Seattle is a Russ-centered franchise now, only capable of advancing as far as he can carry them. His play just won’t do.

6. After a putrid loss to San Francisco last week, the Rams, and Jared Goff, course corrected in Arizona. A needed win against a floundering Cardinal squad, the NFC West proves each week is all about the quarterback. Wilson struggles, the Seahawks lose. Goff, a week after turning the ball over 3 times, held on to the ball Sunday, threw for 351 yards and a score, leaving the desert in first place in the division. After gaining early season MVP buzz, Kyler Murray is struggling to complete passes from inside the pocket and has only run for 61 yards in their last 3 games. The quarterback who rights himself first, and gains consistency, will win the NFC West.

7. Tua Tagovailoa has only turned the ball over once, a fumble in his first start against the Rams. His numbers don’t pop, but with their defense, who cares? Pittsburgh has allowed only 1 less point, and the Dolphins are getting stingier, surrendering just 10 per contest in their last 3. They’ll give away yards, but are 4th in the league in turnovers, 8th in sack percentage, and tied for 4th in red zone touchdowns allowed. Bend, but don’t break, personified. Look, the division reeks. But a year ago, we expected the Dolphins to lose 16. Don’t forget about Brian Flores in the Coach of the Year conversation.

8. While trading Stefon Diggs left the offense with less talent, Viking wideout Justin Jefferson has saved the front office a modicum of grief as a strong number 2 behind Adam Thielen. Now with over 1000 yards on the season to go with 7 touchdown catches, he’s helped Kirk Cousins rebound from a horrendous start to the season, thrusting Minnesota into playoff contention in the NFC. He’s fourth in the league averaging 17 yards per catch and 5th in receiving yards per game, one spot above former Viking Diggs in the category. Cousins is untrustworthy, and the Vikings almost choked at home to Jacksonville on Sunday. But with Jefferson taking the top off defenses, he allows Thielen to work underneath while also opening lanes for the NFL’s second leading rusher Dalvin Cook to speed through. Cousins is an enigma, but the weapons at his disposal are among the league’s best.

9. The blown games and general nonsense that goes on in Atlanta cause him to get overlooked, as does his All-Pro teammate Julio Jones, but Calvin Ridley has established himself in two years as a perennial Pro Bowler. Catches like these are becoming the norm.

10. Pittsburgh vs. Buffalo, the Sunday nighter, is a prove it game for each team. Pittsburgh’s head scratching loss to Washington this week may be nothing, but if they struggle against the AFC East leader on the road, more questions will surface. The dominant defense has cooled, the offense can’t run the ball, and Ben Roethlisberger has become a dink and dunker at quarterback. While the Steelers record is gaudy, does anyone consider them a threat to Kansas City? The Bills lead a poor division; are they capable of playing deep into January? Josh Allen leads the third highest passing attack in the league, but they can’t run the ball either, and the Bills’ defense is below average across the board. Kansas City is the overwhelming favorite to return to the Super Bowl from the AFC, but these two franchises consider themselves contenders. The time to prove it is now.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

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