The Cleveland Browns are dull. Not a compliment on its face, but for this franchise, it’s a proclamation. No longer unprepared or arrogant, the Browns’ focus on the opponent, and how to defeat them, has become the thing. Sunday’s dismantling of the New York Giants wasn’t a surprise, nor was it flashy. Cleveland didn’t earn style points, but they aren’t playing to impress a committee. They took care of the team in front of them the way talented teams do. Baker Mayfield continued his fiery streak. Jarvis Landry made big catches at opportune times. Rashard Higgins has become a problem for defenses down field. And while Myles Garrett continues to recuperate from COVID-19, Olivier Vernon’s dominance slowed New York’s over-matched offensive line. In a game never in doubt, Browns fans are feeling what it’s like to root for competency. Not every contest has to be an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. The Browns are boring, and they’re also contenders.
Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt guided the offense through the choppy beginning of the season. Because of an off-season spent scattered across the country, Kevin Stefanski installed a new offense over Zoom meetings. The lack of continuity showed in September and October, but the offensive line and running backs were elite, allowing the Browns to score points despite playing in a new scheme. Things have changed since the second Cincinnati game, however. Mayfield has become one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The change is startling, considering his problems in the pocket from last year went unfixed over the off-season. But Stefanski saw what smart observers knew. Get Mayfield out of the pocket and use that devastating running game to help your QB. Rely on play action. Sunday’s numbers:
Over the Browns last three games, their third ranked rushing attack (152.6 yards per game), has dropped to 17th (120.7). But the passing game has taken off. 24th on the season (224.6 ypg), it ranks second over the last three (327). Give credit to Baker Mayfield and coach Stefanski. The offense is blooming in time for the playoffs. But what else happened that day in Cincinnati?
The team doesn’t want to talk about it. Mayfield has dismissed it. Yet the facts are obvious.
Baker Mayfield’s passing grade through the first six weeks, according to Pro Football Focus: 57.3, 28th in the league
Since Week 7: 91.9, 2nd in the NFL
Odell Beckham Jr. torn his ACL during the Bengals game, and Mayfield has flourished since. His rookie year, without Beckham, he was a breakout superstar. Last year, with Beckham, was a disaster. Make no mistake, Odell Beckham is one of the top five wide receivers in the NFL. His hands and game breaking abilities are unmatched at the position. But for whatever reason, he and Mayfield don’t mesh.
What do the Browns do? Beckham is rehabbing a debilitating injury. Other teams see Mayfield’s on/off numbers with Beckham, too. Does Andrew Berry try to trade the superstar this off-season, or bring him back next year, hoping Mayfield’s ascension to the top of the league’s QB rankings has more to do with his comfort in Stefanski’s system, and take the chance that Odell can meld into the offense? Or if Beckham returns, will he cause another regression from Baker? Why is Mayfield worse with more talent surrounding him? Is he trying to placate Beckham when he’s on the field? This is the most troublesome question facing the organization before the 2021 season, and second on their to-do list behind a re-hauling of the porous defense. This Browns team is going to the playoffs, and they’ll be a tough out, however many games they play. With their youth and talent on offense, Super Bowl aspirations for next season are real, if they can fix the defense over an off-season. Will bringing Beckham back into the fold vault the offense into the Kansas City stratosphere, or will he drag Mayfield back to mediocrity? Or could he get the defense the help it needs through a trade? Berry’s decisions over the next six months will be crucial to the future of the franchise.
The Browns fly back to New York Sunday to face a Jets squad in the same predicament this franchise wallowed in three seasons ago. A win over the Rams only hurt the Jets’ future, however, knocking them back to number 2 in the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. Sam Darnold was likely John Dorsey’s second choice in the 2018 draft behind Mayfield, and Darnold has shown ability between injuries. A smart team will try to trade for Darnold this off-season; in the right hands he may still succeed. But the Jets now are bad. Adam Gase is a disgrace. He’s the worst coach in the league and has no competition for the title. In past seasons, this is a spot where the Browns would choke, fumbling an opportunity. But these dullards should take care of a poorly run team and franchise Sunday, another ho-hum victory on the way to the playoffs.
The Whip Around
1.Remember the days back in 2018, when Kansas City’s pass defense was a sieve? Despite Patrick Mahomes’ talent, K.C. wouldn’t win a Super Bowl because of their horrid defense. Enter Tyrann Mathieu. Since being acquired before the 2019 season, Mathieu has remade Kansas City’s secondary, now one of the best units in the league. The second worst pass defense in ‘18 (272 yards per game), the Chiefs have risen to tenth this season (230 ypg), while allowing the third worst completion percentage in the NFL (61.1%). Mathieu is third in the league with six interceptions and allows only a 58.8 quarterback rating on throws to his man. He’s a big play hawk, and while his 4.5 speed isn’t blazing, he covers more ground than most safeties because he takes great angles and reads QBs better than most. Unless weird things happen, K.C. is going to win their second straight Super Bowl, and most of the credit belongs to Mahomes and their overwhelming offense. But Mathieu is an essential piece, too.
2. Check out the year Stefon Diggs is having. Labeled a malcontent in Minnesota, the Vikings leapt at the chance to receive first, fifth, and sixth round picks in 2020 and a fourth in 2021 for Diggs after the relationship between him and the organization cratered. But he’s transformed Josh Allen in Buffalo, helping make the third year QB more consistent. Allen is now a Pro Bowler and Buffalo is home to the second best passing attack in the league, behind only K.C.’s supercharged unit. Diggs leads the league in catches (111) and is third in receiving yards (1314). He gives the sometimes erratic Allen a reliable target, both on deep balls, able to take advantage of Allen’s mammoth arm strength, and on third downs. Buffalo’s 50.9% third down conversion percentage leads the league, and Diggs, along with Cole Beasley, as trustworthy targets have a huge hand in that. The Bills are the biggest threat to the Chiefs in the AFC, and Allen and Diggs are the reason.
3. This is a throw Josh Allen, couldn’t, or wouldn’t, have made a year ago. A beauty shoved into a tiny window.
4. Now sitting atop the NFC, Green Bay keeps chugging. Their wins aren’t impressive (24-16 over Carolina last weekend, meh), but 11-3 is 11-3. Aaron Rodgers’ 40 touchdowns and glistening league leading 118 QB rating make him Mahomes only competition in the MVP race, and the Packers average just .1 point less per game than K.C. But are they title contenders? The offense ranks 8th overall passing and running (fine), but the defense is worse than it appears. Also 8th in yards allowed per game, the 5.6 yards per play they give up is 19th, however. The run D is worse (4.5, 21st). The Packers played their way into the NFC title game last season before San Francisco’s relentless pressure and running game ran them off the field. Green Bay is good. Can they be great?
5. Uh, the Steelers. Dominant for 11 games, Pittsburgh just puked all over Paul Brown Stadium Monday night, losing to a 2 win Bengals team decimated by injuries and starting a third-string quarterback. With games against 10-4 Indianapolis and Cleveland remaining, they’re in danger of losing an AFC North title that looked locked just days ago. Their problems are obvious. Ben Roethlisberger was 1-14 with an interception on deep throws against the Bengals, and that once overbearing pass rush has softened. While they still lead the league in sack percentage (9.18%), that number has plummeted in recent weeks (5.56% in their last three, 16th). The offense can’t run the ball, nor can Big Ben throw it down field. Relying on a quick passing game spells trouble. One dimensional offenses get exposed over time, and word is out on Pittsburgh’s. Now their historic pass rush is just good. Mike Tomlin is an outstanding coach. If anyone can figure out this freefall, it’s him. But this team looks washed.
6. For the success of the league, hope that Houston hires the right head coach. Deshaun Watson is astounding, dragging a talentless garbage dump of a roster into tight games each week. He should be an MVP contender (110 rating, 4134 yards, 27 touchdowns), yet Bill O’Brien’s nonsense over the last few years destroyed a strong roster. The Texans locked Watson into Houston for the next three years at 10, 35, 37 mil per, a bargain for a star such as him. Instead of toiling in a rudderless abyss, he should compete for titles. Hire Eric Bieniemy, Houston, and give Watson hope.
7. Tom Brady’s numbers are great. Tampa has an effective pass rush, and is first in the league against the run, but does anyone see more than 1 playoff win? If they don’t sack the QB, the pass defense struggles (25th in the league). Brady, like his older peers at the position (Roethlisberger, Brees) can’t throw deep. It’s the flaw their teams cannot overcome. As successful as they’ve been, this triumvirate will hurt their teams come January. Unable to take the top off defenses, the opposition will sit on the quick slants and crosses these teams live on. Athletic defenses will stifle them, as we’re seeing. Don’t bet on the Saints, Bucs, or Steelers next month.
8. I don’t understand the geometry here. How does Mahomes’ pass get there? How does Hardman keep his feet in bounds? Majestic to watch.
9. While the AFC is stacked with worthy playoff teams and a double digit squad will probably sit home, the NFC……isn’t. We all know about the trash pile in the East, but Chicago and Minnesota are still in contention for the final Wild Card, too. Mitchell Trubisky (yeah, that guy) has started Chicago’s last four games. The Vikings started 1-5, lost to the Cowboys, needed overtime to beat the Jaguars at home, and are still alive. The Bears lost six games in a row. Though historically the better conference, the NFC looks weak this season. None seem capable of pushing the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, and a Green Bay-New Orleans title game looks likely considering the schizophrenia of Seattle and Los Angeles out west. Please Kyler Murray and Arizona, grab that 7th seed.
10. L.A. Rams-Seattle Seahawks
If Seattle wins, they’re division champions. A Rams victory coupled with a Week 17 win over Arizona, and the title is theirs. These two make little sense, however. The Rams look like Super Bowl contenders one week, then lose to the freaking Jets at home the next. Seattle owns the worst pass defense in the league. Their pass offense is averaging only 191 yards per game over the last three, and they lost to the Giants at home three weeks ago. Russell Wilson owed the MVP at the midway point of the season, but he peaked too early. Which team do you have faith in? Jared Goff is untrustable, but Aaron Donald seems headed for another Defensive Player of the Year award, Jalen Ramsey shuts down one side of the field, and the Rams D only allows 19 per game, third in the league. After averaging 8.6 yards per attempt in the team’s first 9 games, Wilson’ YPA has cratered (6.5 in his last six). Can he complete deep passes to D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett? Or will Donald’s pass rush and Ramsey’s coverage force him into check downs and scrambles? If Wilson rediscovers his big play magic, they’ll win the West.
All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com