Yes, Another Startling Cleveland Disaster. But Wait, Here Comes Pittsburgh

Excuses. They’ve run thick since Sunday, all trying to brush aside the Cleveland Browns’ latest debacle. A 23-16 loss to the one-win Jets. But their offensive line was missing two starters. But they placed their top four wide receivers on the COVID-19 list on Saturday, delaying the plane to New York by four hours. But they were missing two linebackers, then two got injured during the game. But, but, but….

The apologizes and evasiveness from fans, sportswriters, and members of the organization have prevailed since the move in 1995. There’s always a reason, a unique set of circumstances that befalls the Browns. Whether the referees conspired, or the league, or the announcers, someone has been out for the Cleveland Browns. To bury them. Forget about poor management, coaching, or terrible players. They aren’t at fault. Everyone else is.

It’s time it ended. Division titles, playoff games, and Super Bowls are collected by those overcoming adversity, not teams using it to cover their own mistakes. Teams across the league have dealt with players missing time for COVID, games being rescheduled, injuries by key players, poor calls by refs, etc. These hardships steel strong franchises, strengthening them, preparing them for tougher conditions in January and February. This Browns team is young, and first year head coach Kevin Stefanski doesn’t seem the type to use this week’s tribulations as an excuse. But he can’t allow the team to, either. He brushed aside the media’s questions surrounding the bombs dropped on him Saturday and he must continue to do so with the media and in the locker room.

Leaders rally during hard conditions. Baker Mayfield faced the toughest on Sunday. Timing is key in the passing game, and without his top four wideouts, Mayfield struggled. His passes were inaccurate, and his receivers were often slow into and out of their routes, causing timing issues. The running game, 3rd ranked in the NFL, did him no favors, either. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt combined for 39 yards on the ground against the 29th rated defense in the league. Not good enough.

Austin Hooper dropped three crucial catches, two on third downs and one in the end zone. A Pro Bowler in each of the last two seasons, Hooper’s no show Sunday was disastrous. And the defense. The Achilles heel all season, the offense has overpowered most opponents, rendering Cleveland’s weak link an afterthought. Sunday’s game was an example of why this iteration shouldn’t be trusted in big games. The secondary blew coverages on all three Jet touchdown passes and allowed 131 yards rushing to a team averaging just over 100. Only Sam Darnold’s inaccuracy and hesitancy in the pocket prevented New York from scoring more. Misdirection worked well for the Jets on Sunday. Two of the three touchdown passes moved the Browns D in one direction before throwing the ball to the other, and New York hurt Cleveland with screens. A poor showing against the worst rated offense in the NFL.

Forget about who wasn’t there. Baker Mayfield is the leader of the franchise, the reason the future is bright. Regardless of how large the final number is, he’s set to sign a monstrous contract extension either this summer or next. He can’t fumble three times and lose two of them in a playoff clinching game, however. His last miscue on 4th and 1 from the Jet 16 occurred with no defender getting a hand on the ball, just jarring Mayfield enough for it to come loose. It isn’t good enough. Blame the play on the field. If they are to break the 17 year playoff drought, the Browns have to do it on the field, regardless of any outside influences. Losers whine about what they can’t control. Winners use it to build their resolve.

Fitting that it comes down to the Steelers. A win Sunday against their rival and Cleveland is in the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Pittsburgh ended their three game slide at home against the Colts on Sunday, clinching the AFC North and looking more like the team that started 11-0 in the second half. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t playing Sunday. Mason Rudolph is. Rudolph isn’t good, and his history with the Browns and Myles Garrett will keep talk shows busy all week. Forget about the soap opera element to this one. The Browns have to beat the Steelers, an arduous task regardless of the quarterback.

Pittsburgh is a bad match-up for the Browns. Baker Mayfield struggles under pressure. The Steelers have the highest sack percentage and blitz rate in the league. They’ve become more susceptible against the run (106 yards per game, 9th), but remain stingy on opposing running backs. Nick Chubb missed the first game these two played. Kareem Hunt and Dontrell Hillard combined for 69 yards. They sacked Mayfield four times, and he threw two picks, one for a touchdown. The Steeler defense has returned to earth from their otherworldly start, but they take away the things Cleveland does best. Expect a low-scoring game.

Roethlisberger’s absence won’t change what Pittsburgh wants to do on offense. Their plan all season has been to throw short and quick, getting the football into the hands of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson early, allowing them to make plays. They’ll do the same Sunday to blunt the Browns’ pass rush. Cleveland’s secondary and linebackers have struggled all season. They need to tackle well (something they haven’t done all season) to stop the Steeler offense. Pittsburgh can’t run the ball; all efforts on defense should focus on the short passing game.

The Jet loss was the last twenty years of Browns football. Mason Rudolph starting is fortuitous, he’s not a NFL caliber quarterback. But it’s the Steelers, a franchise that has haunted the Browns for 25 years. The last time the Browns made the playoffs, they led the Steelers 24-7 in the third quarter and 33-21 with 10 minutes left in Pittsburgh before choking away the victory, losing 36-33 after Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala scored with 54 seconds remaining. The time before, in 1995, Cleveland lost in Pittsburgh 29-9, blown out of the AFC playoffs after defeating Bill Parcells and the New England Patriots the week before. To get back, they must beat the team who’s knocked them down, beaten and bloodied, for three decades. Are these Browns any different?

The Whip Around

1.With Drew Brees’ age, injuries, and lack of arm strength, the Saints won’t be able to count on the soon to be 41-year-old QB. Is Alvin Kamara good enough to carry the water? Six touchdowns against the Vikings Saturday shows he is. The NFC is weaker than in recent years; each team’s flaws are more obvious. Kamara is explosive, and the Saints’ defense is one of the best in the league. Maybe the conference comes down to who has the better month, Kamara or….

2. Davante Adams. The wide receiver got hyped early in his career, became a reliable Aaron Rodgers target, and is now the best pass catcher in the league. Third in catches (109). Fourth in yards (1328). His 17 touchdowns lead the league, as does his 102.2 yards per game average, and his 76.2% catch percentage on 143 targets is unfathomable. Adams has extended the prime of Rodgers, giving him a shot at 38 for his 3rd MVP. Both the Packers and Saints have their detractors, but Kamara and Adams are the two best touchdown scorers in the game. If these two teams meet in the NFC title game, the story should revolve around them, not the elder QBs.

3. If the Steelers can get more of a vertical passing game from Big Ben and his receivers, they become semi-interesting in January. This Diontae Johnson layout is pretty, but rare.

Diontae Johnson diving TD catch 🔥

(via @NFL)
https://t.co/P0tBWU7jKd

Originally tweeted by NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) on December 27, 2020.

4. Losers of 4 of 6, the Arizona Cardinals have become one of the most disappointing teams in the league. Kyler Murray’s rushing yards per attempt have dropped over 2 yards per carry since the start of November, and tossing aside a 400 yard passing day against the lowly Eagles, he hasn’t broken 300 since October. Besides the 2 yard dip per rush attempt, he’s lost a yard off his passing yards per attempt (7.6 to 6.45), too. Teams have taken the big play away from Murray, and it’s destroyed Arizona’s offense. The Bears hold the NFC’s last playoff spot, but the Cardinals are in if they can beat the Rams on Sunday. Looked at as a dangerous sleeper a month ago, now Arizona seems an easy out.

5. Overlooked because of the 49ers’ cratered season, Fred Warner has been outstanding on defense all season. His Pro Football Focus grade (89.1) is six percentage points better than their second best rated linebacker, and while Warner’s counting numbers don’t pop, he’s just never out of position. The best coverage LB in the sport, Warner allows only a 61% completion percentage and 62 rating on passes targeting his man. He also doesn’t miss tackles, evidenced by his tiny 5.7% missed tackle rate. Warner’s tackle and sack numbers don’t pop, but that isn’t what his game is about. He leads on defense by doing his job. Always in position, never missing tackles, and tight coverage on his man in the passing game. Those are the jobs of a genuine star at linebacker.

6. That the Cowboys can sneak into the playoffs is an affront. Attaching a playoff appearance to a division title is fine, but awarding a home game to a losing team is absurd. The NFL’s affinity for the NFC East gets shoved down America’s face on Sunday and Monday nights throughout the season, and the Washington-Philadelphia tilt to close the season this Sunday night is the rightful close to an awkward season. Will these trash teams ever go away?

7. There isn’t a team in the AFC eager to face the Ravens. Lamar Jackson seems recovered from the coronavirus, as do his teammates. The COVID hiccup Baltimore experienced in November has worked its way through the organization, and they’ll be stronger in January having lived it. No organization in the NFL is stronger, or more equipped to face adversity. Add in the disappointment of their 14 win, early playoff exit in 2019, and all the ingredients for a deep playoff run are there. Jackson has returned to form in recent weeks, with a passer rating over 100 in last four games after not eclipsing the century mark in either of his previous six. The Ravens’ recent playoff struggles with Jackson are clear, but it’s hard to imagine a John Harbaugh coached team getting bounced early three years in a row. Other than the Chiefs, all other AFC opponents should try to steer clear.

8. Brady to Gronk, same as it ever was. Like most NFC teams, Tampa is hard to trust. But if this becomes the norm over the next month?

Well that didn’t take long…

Brady connects with Gronk for the early TD 😤

https://t.co/rwvtUzlJvt

Originally tweeted by Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) on December 26, 2020.

9. The Seahawks clinched the NFC West Sunday, and after a horrid start to the season, their defense has come around. After allowing 30 per game their first 8, they’ve cut that number in half since, surrendering only 15 per. They’re only allowing a touchdown on 33% of red zone opportunities over their last 3 games and ranked 9th in air yards allowed over the same period, a marked improvement over their 32nd ranked pass defense overall. Can they sustain their recent successes? The defense’s improvement has coincided with Russell Wilson’s slump. Toss out his 4 touchdown performance against the crappy Jets and he’s only thrown 5 touchdowns to 4 picks over the last half of the season. So why the Jekyll and Hyde act in Seattle? Which team shows itself in the playoffs, the offensive juggernaut, or the defensive stalwart? Some will pick the Seahawks for the Super Bowl because their talent is obvious and the NFC is weak. But trust them at your own peril.

10. Want a quick, easy stat that shows why the Chiefs are overwhelming favorites to win it all? Yards per touch. Tyreek Hill leads the league (14), Travis Kelce is second (13.5), and third place DeAndre Hopkins trails the tight end by over a yard. The most explosive offense in the league eats yards, with talent both in and outside, and the most gifted quarterback ever leads the orchestra. Patrick Mahomes is too good at getting the ball to his play makers without turning it over. Their margin for error is wide; K.C. can survive many calamities, as they proved a year ago. Hard to imagine them losing the trophy. A dynasty in the making.


All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

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