Heartbreak, But Hope. A Cleveland Browns Story

One team went for it on fourth down, the other did not. The first divisional round playoff game for the Cleveland Browns since 1995 wasn’t so simple, yet the disparity of Kevin Stefanski punting from his own 32 with 4:19 remaining in the fourth quarter and one timeout remaining on 4th and 9, versus Andy Reid going for it on 4th and 1 from their own 48 with 1:19 left in the game and his backup quarterback under center, and putting the ball in the air, was striking. It wasn’t a clear cut call for Stefanski, but Reid’s decision was unconventional, too. It’ll take guts to reach their destination, but the future in Cleveland is bright. Optimism reins for the franchise for the first time since after the 2007 season. It’s more than deserved now. The Cleveland Browns are real.

Sunday in Kansas City was as expected. The Chiefs’ offense moved at will, taking whatever they wanted from the Browns’ defense. Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill dominated, both catching 8 passes while controlling space on the field. Hill freed himself on crossing patterns, outrunning the secondary, while Kelce overpowered whoever defended him. But Baker Mayfield did enough to keep the score close. The strategy was sound, if not mismanaged. He bled the play clock under 5 seconds on most snaps, costing the team timeouts and delay-of-game penalties, in order to shorten the game. But Rashard Higgins’ 5 catches were monstrous, as was his fumble through the end zone that cost the Browns 7 points. David Njoku’s best game as a pro solidified the front office’s decision to keep him on the roster after his trade request in the off-season. An opportunity slipped away, however, when Patrick Mahomes left the game with a concussion. Despite how the future looks, a myriad of decisions await before the 2021 season begins. Improving from 11 wins to Super Bowl contender is the hardest leap an organization can make. Will Chad Henne’s 4th down completion be only a footnote to Cleveland’s resurgence, or another heartbreak? Another what-if?

The defense needs fixed. Grant Delpit, a 2nd round pick last year from LSU, tore his Achilles in training camp. He’s needed at one safety spot. Ronnie Harrison played well after being acquired from Jacksonville before the season started. He should hold down the other safety position. Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward are stars on the defensive line and at cornerback. Everything else is fluid. Greedy Williams missed the entire season. Can he return next year and hold down the corner spot opposite Ward? Sheldon Richardson should be back, but he is due 12 million next season and only counts 1.6 million against the cap if he’s cut. Olivier Vernon tore an Achilles in the last game of the regular season and is a free agent, as is Larry Ogunjobi. All linebackers need replaced. Andrew Berry will use the draft and free agency to rebuild the unit, making it Super Bowl ready. Is it possible to do in one off-season?

The offensive linemen are all signed through at least 2022. The Browns have a sturdy set of tight ends and running backs. Jarvis Landry is the heart of the team, and Rashard Higgins proved he belongs. Baker Mayfield is the starting quarterback the franchise has searched for since returning in 1999. The offense will continue to be their strength in 2021, but some questions exist. Will Odell Beckham Jr. be back, or get traded? It’s complicated, and perhaps Berry’s hardest decision to make. Is his talent worth more than the 4th or 5th round pick he’s likely worth on the market, or are the headaches he causes, along with his and Mayfield’s questionable chemistry on the field, too much to deal with? Will Nick Chubb want an extension? Is the front office ready to go to work on Mayfield’s second contract?

Regardless, the team is young. They just experienced playoff football at its highest level, competing with the best team in the league, on the road, in the fourth quarter. However tough the loss seems now, it’ll pay for itself in the future. If this team is as hungry as they state, the AFC North now runs through Cleveland. The organization, which fumbled through the 21st century, is now ready to win.

All credit goes to Kevin Stefanski. Many of the actors were there in 2020. They were undisciplined, however, and raw. None knew how to win, or the sacrifices it took to do so. Stefanski’s even-tempered persona has calmed an inclement franchise, and now the talent amassed has a leader guiding it. Sunday was disappointing, yet enthralling. Football unseen in Cleveland since the 1980s reappeared, awakening a fan base desperate for a team to give back all they’ve put into it for three decades. An additional set of stories to tell, memories to make. Here we go Brownies, here we go.

AFC Championship

Buffalo vs. Kansas City An offensive shootout, if Patrick Mahomes gets cleared from the NFL’s concussion protocol. The two best passing offenses in the league, both will attempt to outscore the other. Buffalo’s defense was impressive, if wind aided Saturday night against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, but Mahomes is another animal. They don’t generate enough pressure to disrupt Mahomes, and while they’ve allowed just the 8th most passing yards to opponents, Tre’Davious White and Josh Norman don’t have the speed to stay with K.C.’s receivers. Both defenses struggle to stop teams in the red zone. Buffalo (26th, 63%) and Kansas City (32nd, 77%) allow touchdowns inside the 20, another reason to expect a plethora of points Sunday night. The Chiefs’ defense is pedestrian, good at nothing. Josh Allen is now an MVP candidate with a top five receiver in the NFL to throw to in Stefon Diggs. So who scores more? If Mahomes plays, it’s hard to envision him losing a shoot-out. Allen has leapt a level this season, but trust in high leverage moments with him is still an issue. Is he good enough to go to Kansas City and outscore the Chiefs? If Mahomes misses the game, Buffalo wins. Chad Henne isn’t good enough against this Buffalo offense, even if Allen makes a few mistakes. If not, K.C. heads to their second straight Super Bowl.

Kansas City 34, Buffalo 29

NFC Championship

Tampa Bay vs. Green Bay Strong offenses versus middling defenses hold in the NFC as well. Two of the ten best quarterbacks ever, in the snow at Lambeau Field, for the first time in the playoffs, for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers gets a home game for an NFC title for the first time. Tom Brady, though playing in Tampa, is used to cold weather games with meaning. Rodgers is the likely league MVP, perhaps coming off his greatest season. 70% completions, 48 touchdowns. Davante Adams established himself as one of the best wideouts in the game (115 catches, 18 touchdowns). What will Bucs’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ strategy be? Bowles likes to blitz (fifth this season in blitz frequency), but Rodgers will feast if he sends extra defenders on Sunday. Tampa needs to generate pressure up front, and Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaq Barrett, and Ndamukong Suh are capable. Containing Aaron Jones is a must, and Tampa led the league in defending the run (80 yards per game). It’s hard to pin down what you’re getting from them, however. In seven games, they’ve given up at least 27 points. In five others, less than 17. Hard to count on a brilliant performance against Rodgers.

After struggling early in Tampa, Brady has caught fire. He’s Pro Football Focus’ top rated quarterback since Week 14 (94.3) and leads the league in yards per attempt (9.7), touchdowns (14), and passing yards (1714) during that time. Za’Darius Smith is Green Bay’s only reliable pass rusher, so they’ll lean more on corner Jaire Alexander and safety Adrian Amos to curb Tampa’s passing game. Tampa’s running game is putrid (97 yards per game, 27th) so expect little on the ground. This game is Brady’s. He has to carry the offense to win a shootout in Lambeau. Against any other opponent, you’d like his odds.

Green Bay 34, Tampa Bay 32

All stats courtesy of teamrankings.com

The Cleveland Browns Colossal, Franchise Altering Win Shocked and Awed. Now, Kansas City

When match-ups against a supposed rival end in a pummeling for five decades, swapping coaches every other season while they stack playoff wins and Super Bowl trophies, it grows tiresome. Not only your losing, but their successes. Smug faces in black and gold, touting victories they had nothing to do with, celebrating your pain as much as their happiness. It’s impossible to be an NFL team with a 6-44 record since 1970 on the road facing a rival, yet that was the record the Cleveland Browns hauled to Pittsburgh with them, with all their sordid history against a foe just 135 miles south. The towns and their fan bases are quite similar, yet their records, opposite. Perhaps a shift is coming, however. 48-37.

In January everything gets magnified. While the Browns defense struggled again, they forced Ben Roethlisberger and the Steeler offense into five turnovers. Baker Mayfield committed none. The difference in Mayfield, and the team, this season over last, is the mistakes. Mayfield has thrown just one interception in his last ten games. While the completion percentage has fluctuated, his poise hasn’t. Kevin Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt understand their quarterback and the things he needs for success. They’ve built an offense around his strengths. Mayfield has enough talent to win, as long as the weight of the offense isn’t on him. A devastating running game, elite offensive line, and imaginative play calling from the sidelines give Mayfield the tools he requires.

Now he’s the first Browns quarterback to win a playoff game since Vinny Testaverde. Mayfield doesn’t waver. His confidence is key, a swagger and presence essential to win in Cleveland. It looked as though Ben Roethlisberger was delaying his exit from Heinz Field Sunday night, basking under the lights of so many of the successes in his Hall of Fame career. But it may have ended then, and these franchises are headed away from one another. Baker Mayfield has taken the reins, poised to lead the Browns for a decade. As Roethlisberger wept on the sideline after a stunning loss, Steeler Nation had another use for their Terrible Towels. The Steelers have one of the best ownership groups in sports and employ an excellent head coach. But cap hell is coming, and a retiring quarterback, whether this year or next. It’s Cleveland’s time.

Sunday’s victory meant more to a fan base destroyed by losses and incompetence than most can imagine. Despite a COVID nightmare all week, one without a practice until Friday, missing the likely Coach of the Year and a Pro Bowl guard, the Browns rallied behind the adversity and Mayfield. The roster is lacking, mainly on defense, but the want-to Stefanski has installed isn’t. For 21 years, the Browns and their fans have toiled under false pretenses and ineptitude from all ranks of their franchise. Sunday was the reward. The trophies still sit perched in Pittsburgh, but the hope now lives in Cleveland.

So bury the Steelers. The Super Bowl champion Chiefs await, a task more meaningful in the lessons it will provide more than the outcome. A road game in Kansas City in January for a team as young as Cleveland’s provides tests that nothing else can. The Browns will probably lose on Sunday, but their mettle will show, regardless. The Chiefs are perhaps the greatest offensive team in history, piloted by one of the most dynamic quarterbacks ever. Cleveland’s goal is to develop this rivalry. K.C. will be here for the next decade. They are the new Patriots, the AFC standard any challenger will have to defeat. Patrick Mahomes vs. Baker Mayfield. To get there the Browns have to feel these games and learn what the effect of losing them will have. Sunday is gravy. Enjoy it.

So where’s the path to victory? For one, turnovers. They turn games, especially one offs in the NFL. The Browns defense is fifth in the league, creating 1.5 turnovers per game, so Sunday was no fluke. But K.C. takes care of the ball. Mahomes possesses the second lowest interception rate in the league, and the Chiefs have the eighth best turnover margin. Their offense is a buzz saw of efficiency. But they’ve struggled since November. They’re only beating opponents by an average of 3.5 points per game, not dominant. K.C. was still winning, however. Did they just shift into cruise?

Cleveland must turn up the aggression on Sunday. Go for it on 4th down, even in minus territory. And don’t kick field goals in the red zone. K.C.’s defense has the worst red zone touchdown percentage in the league (76.6%). Cleveland’s offense is fourth at scoring inside the 20 (72.4%). Give Cody Parkey the day off. For the Browns to win, they have to score. Field goals are meaningless. Kansas City has the best offense in the league, its best passing attack, and even the 16th rated rushing offense. The Browns’ defensive woes aren’t new. Simply put, they will not stop the Chiefs from scoring.

The offense will run the ball with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to keep the ball from Mahomes. The Chief defense gives up 122 a game on the ground. Overpower K.C.’s so-so defense. Though they didn’t Sunday night, Stefanski and Van Pelt should get them on the field together. It’ll take at least 40 to remain close. The RBs combined for 124 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns along with 5 catches, 82 yards, and another TD through the air against Pittsburgh. One more plea to the Browns’ offensive brass; get your two best play makers on the field at the same time.

Cross your fingers when the defense takes the field. Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill combined for 2692 yards, 192 catches, and 26 touchdowns. Hill’s speed, along with Mecole Hardman’s and Demarcus Robinson’s, and Sammy Watkins on the outside, gives the porous Browns secondary much to worry about. Denzel Ward’s return would help, but Mahomes’ weapons are massive. A significant pass rush is needed too, but the Chiefs O-line and Mahomes’ quick release equal a measly 3.67% sack percentage, 4th in the NFL. There are no holes in this offense, up against a defense littered with them.

Making the Divisional Round of the playoffs for this franchise is the thing. Savor the victory against Pittsburgh and Roethlisberger. The Chiefs are an animal for another day. An off-season shoring up the defense, along with an Odell Beckham return or trade, will arm the organization with more ammunition against Kansas City next season. As will this experience. Nothing is more important than getting the feel, for knowing what they need, instead of guessing. A playoff game in K.C. is the perfect teacher.

Kansas City 45, Cleveland 30

The Whip Around

Baltimore @ Buffalo Expect points in Buffalo Saturday night. The Ravens will run the ball and the Bills won’t be able to stop them. Baltimore knows they have to control tempo, as they’ve struggled in past playoffs from behind. Their passing game is average, and it’s still difficult to trust Lamar Jackson to make big throws in important spots. The Bills have lit up scoreboards with Josh Allen leading the 2nd best passing attack in the league, and his deep connection with Stefon Diggs unlocked Buffalo’s offense. The Ravens pass defense is good, not great, as is their pass rush. So who blinks? Buffalo looked sketchy last week against Indy, and the Ravens seem on a mission to prove they can handle the playoffs. Who do you trust more with the game on the line, Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen?

Baltimore 31, Buffalo 30

Los Angeles @ Green Bay Offense versus defense personified. The Rams again don’t know who their quarterback will be this weekend, and their offense struggled all season, regardless. Cam Akers ran for 131 over the weekend against Seattle, and he must carry L.A.’s offense again if they’re to score enough to upset the Pack at Lambeau. Green Bay is weak against the run (4.5 yards allowed per rush, 21st in the league). The Packers can rush the QB (7.11% sack rate, 7th) and Za’Darius Smith’s 12.5 sacks ranked 4th in the league, so with two injured quarterbacks and a middling passing game, its imperative the Rams run the ball and keep Aaron Rodgers on the sideline. Rodgers will finish either first or second in MVP voting. He led the league in completion percentage (70.7) touchdown passes (48) and had the league’s lowest interception rate (1.0%). He must be spectacular against the stingiest defense in the league. The Rams allowed the fewest points, total yards, and passing yards in the league. Aaron Donald, expected to play despite tearing rib cartilage last week against Seattle, will win Defensive Player of the Year for the 3rd time and disrupts everything offenses do. Jalen Ramsey, Darious Williams, and John Johnson III lead an air tight secondary capable of slowing Rodgers and Davante Adams, but for how long? While L.A.’s defense may not get run over, it’s hard to imagine their offense scoring enough to win.

Green Bay 24, Los Angeles 16

Tampa Bay @ New Orleans Tom Brady against Drew Brees, of course. Whichever old man weathers pressure best will win. Both teams sport excellent pass rushes (sack %: Tampa 7.03, 8th, N.O. 7.28, 6th), so quick throws will be key. That’s a problem for Tampa. Bruce Arians likes to throw long to his dangerous receivers, but Trey Hendrickson and Cameron Jordan will be in Brady’s grill all evening. The style is a better fit for the Saints, even with Brees’ arm shot. They’ll rely on possession throws to Michael Thomas and screens and runs from Alvin Kamara, the most dynamic player on the field. Though both offenses finished in the top five in scoring, defenses will decide this one. Both units force turnovers, so that battle will be key. New Orleans’ was most consistent during the season, finishing in the top five in scoring, total yards, third down percentage, rush yards, pass completion percentage allowed, pass yards, and turnovers. Brady has struggled against pressure all season, and his passer rating on deep throws is poor. Brady is the better QB, but Brees has a stronger team.

New Orleans 23, Tampa Bay 20

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">All stats courtesy of teamrankings.comAll stats courtesy of teamrankings.com

The Arduous Wait Has Ended. A Breakthrough Season Derailed by COVID in Cleveland?

The Cleveland Browns get to dance. Sunday night at 8:20 a playoff game will kickoff in Pittsburgh. The Browns will take part. For the first time in 18 years the disjointed, woebegone franchise, run amok for so long by poor management and neophyte leadership, will co-star alongside their rival, a game considered the jewel of wild card weekend by the NFL and its television partners. The team seems to have peaked a month ago, yet we will write the obituary of the 2020 season at a later date. The city of Cleveland and their fan base deserve the week to celebrate a return to relevancy that was never certain to occur. 11 wins and a playoff appearance mark this season a success, regardless of the outcome at Heinz Field this weekend. They are no longer a punch line.

Still, winning is the thing. The victory total is the highest since 1994, the last time the team won a playoff game. The Steelers have struggled since an 11-0 start, and despite the state of Pennsylvania set to allow fans on Sunday night (crowds in Pittsburgh during the regular season only included family and friends of the players and members of the organization), the number permitted in is unknown. Home field advantage in Pittsburgh and across the league barely exists, however. The Jet loss and Sunday’s performance were disheartening, removing the shine from a punishing victory over Tennessee and a razor thin loss to Baltimore. Can a Browns team bereft of any meaningful playoff experience and slumping defeat a model NFL franchise chaperoned by a Hall of Fame coach and quarterback?

Now COVID hits. Kevin Stefanski, reason number one for the turnaround this season, won’t be on the sideline this weekend. Gone are his leadership abilities, the team’s offensive play caller, and a formidable game day manager. Pro Bowler Joel Bitonio will miss the game. Third wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge won’t suit up. Denzel Ward’s status is questionable. The team’s facility was closed on Tuesday and will remain so on Wednesday. How many others will test positive? Can the team even practice this week? The NFL will ram this game down the gullets of the public on Sunday night at 8:20. They refuse to disrupt the playoff schedule. What will this team even look like by Sunday?

The Mason Rudolph-led offense deployed last Sunday in Cleveland didn’t attack the Browns defense as Ben Roethlisberger will this weekend. Rudolph isn’t a good quarterback. He struggles to read the field and has no touch on short and intermediate throws. Relying on the deep ball, Rudolph leaned on the talents of his wide receivers, throwing long to Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Diontae Johnson, counting on them to win one-on-one match-ups against Cleveland’s secondary. They nearly made enough plays to win. With Roethlisberger under center, he’ll attempt to throw short and quick, allowing his wideouts to make plays on the move. The Steeler pass offense ranked 15th in passing yards per game on the season (250), but only 25th in yards gained per play (6.1). Pittsburgh throws a ton, but they dink and dunk. Big Ben is 38 and cannot move in the pocket as he once did. The offensive line struggles run blocking; they own the worst ground attack in the league. But by releasing the ball from his hand fast, Roethlisberger avoids sacks (2.09% sack percentage is lowest in the league). The Steelers game plan will be to slow the Browns pass rush (the strength of the defense) and put pressure on Cleveland’s back seven (its weakness). Pittsburgh has struggled over the last month because defenses are taking away their rhythmic passing offense. Unfortunately for Cleveland, they don’t possess the talent at linebacker or in the secondary to force Roethlisberger to throw deep. A nightmare match-up for the horrid Browns defense.

Baker Mayfield played disjointed on Sunday and has for two weeks. Kevin Stefanski deserves blame, calling more straight drop backs for his diminutive passer when it’s obvious he thrives on the move and in play action. Alex Van Pelt, offensive coordinator and Stefanski’s play calling replacement, must return to using Baker’s strengths for the Browns to win Sunday. It’s irresponsible to expect Cleveland’s defense to hold Pittsburgh’s offense down. The Steelers averaged 26 points per game this season (12th) despite their one dimensional attack. Olivier Vernon, Cleveland’s best defender since the midway point of the season, is out for the playoffs with a ruptured Achilles. Denzel Ward’s playing status is unknown. Myles Garrett has yet to return to form since returning from COVID, logging only 2.5 sacks and 4 quarterback hits in the five games he’s played. With such uncertainty hovering over their three best defenders, expecting anything from the defense is foolhardy.

So they must score. If hot Baker Mayfield shows, they’ll stay close, but he cannot turn it over. The offense has stagnated. It needs a wrinkle against an opponent they’ve played twice in three months. Here are the snap counts from Sunday:

62 offensive plays run. Nick Chubb, 27 snaps. Kareem Hunt, 35 snaps. Chubb and Hunt are the two best offensive players on the team, each capable of housing it on any play. Each runs strong routes and has skilled hands. Get them on the field together. Line one in the backfield, the other in the slot. Put them both behind Mayfield. Whatever. The fact they shared the field for zero plays on Sunday is perplexing. Jarvis Landry is the heart and soul of the offense, and he’s a chain mover, but Landry isn’t a game breaker. Chubb and Hunt both are, and they’re each flexible enough to play in any spot. They’ll take attention from the other, too.

Pittsburgh’s pass rush is devastating. They sacked Mayfield 4 times Sunday without Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt and Pro Bowler Cam Heyward. The Browns have to slow Pittsburgh’s pass rush (9.62% pressure rate and 3.5 sacks per game, both 1st in the league). Their weakest against the run (11th in the league, 111 yards per game). Though it seems obvious, playoff time isn’t when you get cute against a division rival. Run the ball, use play action, and bootleg Mayfield. It’ll slow the Steelers defensive line while playing into your strengths on offense. And keep your ball handlers on the field.

Pittsburgh’s struggles since Thanksgiving make them vulnerable, but Cleveland’s peak seems behind them, too. The Steelers strengths align with the Browns’ weaknesses, making for a bad match-up. But the Steeler defense has regressed from an otherworldly start to the season, and Big Ben’s age is showing. Beware a fast start for the Steelers. If the Browns can weather the first 10 minutes of the game, and their youth isn’t overcome by the moment and Pittsburgh’s experience, they’ll have a chance late. But expecting this group to shrug off the week they’re set to endure, in Pittsburgh, without their head coach and a Pro Bowler, with little practice time, is too much. This season marks the return of the Cleveland Browns as a franchise. If this hell week does anything, hope it builds their strength and character as they prepare for the 2021 season.

Pittsburgh 27, Cleveland 16

The Whip Around

Indianapolis-Buffalo The Bills are on fire. Indy’s won 4 of 5, yet Josh Allen and Buffalo’s offense are clicking. Don’t expect Phil Rivers to keep up.

Buffalo 38, Indianapolis 20

Baltimore-Tennessee The toughest game on this week’s schedule to call. The Titans’ upset of the Ravens in last year’s playoffs is fresh, but their defense in 2020 isn’t the same, giving up almost a touchdown more per game. Lamar Jackson has had to hear the noise after two straight early playoff bounces for too long.

Baltimore 31, Tennessee 27

Los Angeles-Seattle Russell Wilson’s late struggles are perplexing, and the Rams defense is stout, with the best bunch of defensive backs in the league. But Jared Goff’s status is uncertain and trusting John Wolford, or Goff, in a playoff game in Seattle, even without fans, is foolish. Seattle’s defensive improvement has mirrored Wilson’s swan dive. They’ll find a way at home.

Seattle 20, LA 16

Tampa Bay-Washington The Ron Rivera and Alex Smith stories are heartwarming, but Washington isn’t good. Tampa has yo-yoed throughout the season, but Tom Brady plays quarterback for them, and their defense pressures opposing QBs. That’ll be enough Saturday night.

Tampa 28, Washington 19

Chicago-New Orleans Pity the Mitchell Trubisky-led Bears slid into the tournament. At least Kyler Murray would’ve been entertaining. Though they’ve won 3 of 4, beating Houston, Jacksonville, and Minnesota isn’t a murderer’s row of opponents. The Bears offense is sad, New Orleans’ defense is one of the best in the league. And their offense will get Alvin Kamara back.

NO 34, Chicago 13

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

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)

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 😤


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

Introducing the New Cleveland Browns. They’re Finally Boring

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

A Fumbled Opportunity against Baltimore. A Valuable Lesson, or a Mammoth Failure?

Kevin Stefanski and Baker Mayfield wanted no part of the “moral victory” discussion after Monday night’s harsh loss against the Ravens, and they shouldn’t. The Cleveland Browns have been an embarrassment for twenty years, but keeping games close isn’t the goal. Playoff teams don’t celebrate not getting blown out. For the organization to graduate from laughingstock to contender, ownership, the players and coaches, and the fan base must expect wins. Not getting the doors blown off is no longer an acceptable cause for celebration. Division titles, playoff wins, and Super Bowl appearances are the goal. If the Browns are to succeed, losses like Mondays must end now.

493 yards of total offense, with 355 through the air against the best trio of cornerbacks in the league, showed that Mayfield is progressing. Last week’s assault on the Titans’ defense was impressive, but their pass defense isn’t. Baltimore is a different animal and, despite a tendency to hold unto the football too long and an ugly interception that allowed the Ravens to go up two scores, Mayfield showed toughness and grit. More adversity lays ahead. Playoff games become unpredictable and require a calm from both the quarterback and head coach. Mayfield showed an ability to make excellent throws in tough spots against a stellar secondary. Stefanski’s running of the franchise during his tenure proves he can coach in a playoff setting. But are they a year away from amassing the talent and experience necessary to win in January?

Like it’s been throughout 2020, Cleveland’s defense is a wreck. Denzel Ward missed Monday’s game, and if the Browns are going to compete in January, he has to be on the field. Replacement M.J. Stewart Jr. compiled two penalties in the first half, got toasted on the Ravens’ last drive of the half by Mark Andrews, resulting in a touchdown, and bit on Marquise Brown’s 44 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that pushed the Ravens ahead. Ward is the only talent in Cleveland’s back seven, and good NFL teams throw the ball well. If they don’t have one reliable corner, they’re toast.

If the defense made a play on Monday, it was Sheldon Richardson or Olivier Vernon doing the disrupting. Vernon had two sacks and a key knockdown of a Baltimore pass in the fourth quarter. Richardson was stellar as well, recording a sack and six tackles, the only Browns defender who presented any resistance to the Raven ground game. Myles Garrett settled into a more complementary role, attempting to set the edge on Lamar Jackson and keep him in the pocket, forcing him to throw. It didn’t work, and Cleveland’s defense got run over, allowing 231 rushing yards to Baltimore, 163 by Jackson alone. A strength for much of the season, the run defense got exposed by a power running game and the most dynamic player in the NFL. While injuries to corner Greedy Williams and rookie safety Grant Delpit caused them to miss the season, making a suspect secondary coming into the season decrepit now, hall passes don’t exist for injured players. No help is on the horizon. With this defense, the Browns will have a tough time winning in the playoffs.

A few other random Monday Night Football thoughts:

Jarvis Landry always shows up. Not a huge stat line (6 catches, 52 yards), but Landry was there for Mayfield on third downs and in the fourth quarter when his QB needed him most. Landry is the heartbeat of this team. His steeled attitude will give the Browns an edge from here through the end of the season.

Sione Takitaki and B.J. Goodson scatter in a few impact plays throughout a game, but overall their missed tackles and blown assignments are killer. Games against Lamar Jackson magnify the Browns’ weakness at linebacker. We’ve lost Mack Wilson.

Rashard Higgins almost coughed up two fumbles on the first touchdown drive of the game, but came back to make big catches and scored a TD in the fourth. Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones are making huge grabs and both need to continue that for the offense to score, overcoming the defense’s failures. Just hold onto the ball.

Mayfield still holds on to the ball too long on straight drop back passes. When he sits in the pocket, if the ball isn’t out of his hands when he hits his back foot, bad things are on the horizon. Quick, quick, quick, Baker.

The Browns run game wears on teams, and once the fourth quarter hits, they’re spent. The O-line was road grading Monday night, pushing Baltimore’s stingy defenders where ever they wanted. If they can keep games close against the upper tier of the league, they’ll have a chance at the end of games because of it.

The big boy pants are on. The Browns have gotten comfortable as a joke. It isn’t fun, but there aren’t expectations, either. Thursday night wins against the Jets, December victories over a hapless Charger team can’t be the bar. To compete, they have to beat the Ravens and Steelers. No moral victories, no excuses. How good are the Cleveland Browns, and what will the team and its fan base settle for?

Just beat the Giants. Despite a recent four game winning streak, they aren’t good. The only offense that scores less than theirs is the Jets’. Daniel Jones is a turnover. The defense is middling, okay against the run (7th), and below average defending the pass. No excuses, no hangovers after Baltimore. Another chance, this one on Sunday night, for the franchise to announce its arrival from the depths. Just beat the Giants.

The Whip Around

1.Undefeated until a week ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers today look like a flawed, vulnerable team. Propped throughout the season by a smothering pass rush and quick, efficient passing game, neither have showed in the last two weeks, losses to Washington and Buffalo. The Steelers cannot run. They’re 31st rushing the ball in the league, averaging 89 yards per game. And while Ben Roethlisberger has been efficient all season, he isn’t completing passes down the field, averaging only 6.3 yards per attempt, 31st in the NFL and very un-Ben like. Pittsburgh relies on their defense to put quarterbacks in the dirt, yet they only have 4 sacks in the last two games, and they lost the time of possession battle to Buffalo by over 10 minutes. Not quite Steeler football. They’ve gotten exposed by better defenses capable of taking the quick throws away from Roethlisberger. But the running game is a genuine issue. According to Pro Football Focus, no Steeler offensive linemen has a run blocking grade higher than 62. With an offense so one dimensional, Pittsburgh is too predictable. They play Indianapolis in Week 16 before heading to Cleveland in Week 17. Will they get it together?

2. Tyreek Hill is an explosion. His speed, combined with his diminutive size, creates an uncontainable weapon. That Patrick Mahomes throws him the ball is cruel and unusual for opposing defenses. This duo, along with middle-of-the-field clearer Travis Kelce, is the reason Kansas City is the prohibitive Super Bowl favorite. Hill’s tied for the TD reception lead with Davante Adams (14), is fourth in receiving yards (1158), and averages 15 per catch. Because of his size, troubled past, and lack of highlight ready, one-handed grabs, Hill gets overlooked when discussing the best WRs in the league. No player is more fun to watch, or to have on your fantasy team. K.C.’s offense depends on Mahomes, but Hill is the consistent game breaker that strains defenses to their breaking point. Ask defense coordinators around the NFL who they hate game planning for most. The answer is Hill.

3. Mahomes threw two picks in the 1st quarter against Miami Sunday while also getting caught for a 30 yard sack, one of the worst plays you’ll see. And it didn’t matter. He threw another INT later, but his 393 yards and 2 touchdowns against a vicious Dolphin defense saved the Chiefs from getting upset. He’s the cheat code. Mahomes is the most gifted passer in history, and that, combined with the weapons surrounding him, allows the Chiefs a wide birth. No deficit is too large, as proven in last year’s playoffs. To beat K.C., a team has to control time of possession, score touchdowns on almost every drive, and force Mahomes into multiple turnovers. If you don’t do all three, you lose.

4. Stick a hand up, catch a touchdown pass. With Odell Beckham hurt, A.J. Brown is the new one-handed catch king.

5. If Derrick Henry goes on another end of season run reminiscent of last year’s, Tennessee could end up facing the Chiefs in the AFC title game again. Henry razed Jacksonville’s defense Sunday (215 yards, 2 touchdowns on 26 carries). While running the ball well alone doesn’t make a contender, violent runs do. Runs of 20, 22, 36, and 47 destroy teams’ psyche, causing them to fear Tennessee’s running back in a way few other rushers do. Chunks that large on the ground move the ball down field, a la the passing game, and make the Titans’ offense more dangerous than say, Pittsburgh’s, which can’t complete down field passes (see above). Tennessee’s pass defense is horrible, however. If they can’t stop anyone, Henry’s exploits will be for naught.

6. The turnover machine named Daniel Jones returned to MetLife Stadium Sunday, fumbling 3 times and losing 1, while only completing 52% of his passes. The Giants aren’t good, but a 4 game winning streak against Washington, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Seattle fooled some into believing. A road win in Seattle was nice, but those don’t have the same cachet without fans. Jones missed the Seattle game, but played okay in the previous three wins, not turning the ball over, but only throwing one touchdown pass. Excitement for a stellar defense, a smart rookie head coach in Joe Judge, and a returning Saquon Barkley in 2021 is warranted. But about that quarterback…….

7. The Jets suck, of course, but this is a cool pick off Russell Wilson in the end zone. Still lost 40-3.

8. Everything that has happened in Philly since their win in Super Bowl 52 has led the Eagles toward irrelevancy. Injuries are a primary culprit, and Carson Wentz has dealt with his fair share. But he’s lost, and despite what the organization says, they’ve known it for a while. Why else would they have drafted Jalen Hurts? After leading Philadelphia to an upset over New Orleans Sunday in his first start, Hurts is at least an intriguing option for the future. 106 rushing yards, 167 passing and a touchdown, Hurts deserves a look before the off-season to help the Eagles decide. Surely they’ll try to trade Wentz, but where? He carries a $34 million cap number next season, and while there’s an out before 2022, a team will have to carry a $24 million cap hit if he’s cut. Plus, he looks terrible. Indecisive and unsure aren’t great QB qualities. The Eagles may have the most expensive backup QB in history on their roster next season.

9. Marquise Brown may want to ask Santa for some new hands. Or at least better gloves. His three drops Monday night killed important Baltimore drives, and while his speed is devastating, Lamar Jackson needs a more reliable threat on the edge if Baltimore is to advance deep in the playoffs. His 53% catch percentage ranks 191st in the league, and PFF rates him 81st of 123 receivers in the NFL. Jackson’s third year struggles become clearer when looking at the Ravens receiver room.

10. Kansas City vs. New Orleans A lackluster Week 15 schedule at least gives us a Super Bowl preview, and the focus for everyone will be when Patrick Mahomes has the ball. Kansas City’s offense is historic. But quietly, New Orleans may have the best defense in the league. Despite last week’s loss to Philadelphia, New Orleans has continued stacking wins despite Drew Brees’ injured ribs. It’s because of their defense. 4th in the league in points allowed, 2nd in yards, 4th against the pass, 2nd against the run. Pittsburgh’s unit has gotten hyped all season because of their relentlessness against opposing quarterbacks, but N.O. drops quarterbacks at the 5th best rate in the league (7.69%) and allows fewer yards than the ballyhooed Steeler unit. But the Chiefs are a different animal. It’s impossible to contain all their weapons, and Mahomes doesn’t have poor games. The Saints’ offense will have to score to keep up. Brees is uncertain to play, and the Saints are on record not wanting to rush him back. Taysom Hill is fine as a gimmicky change of pace, but is he ready for a game of this magnitude?

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

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

Kevin Stefanski has Discovered Something. Is his New Style Changing the Browns?

The Cleveland Browns trudged their way to a victory Sunday in Jacksonville, unimpressive yet important. A loss to a one win team on their 3rd string quarterback is a grim look for a team with realistic, for once, playoff aspirations. The Browns own the first wild card slot after 11 games, poised to break an embarrassing 18 year absence from the NFL playoffs. Two wins get them in, and with games against each New York team ahead, only a Cleveland-like implosion will keep them out of the bracket. But how they fare in their three tough match-ups -Tennessee and Baltimore the next two weeks, Pittsburgh in the finale- will show what they are, and who they can become. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt ran well Sunday (surprise!) and the defense, missing their two stars Denzel Ward and Myles Garrett, struggled, unable to affect vagabond quarterback Mike Glennon (Olivier Vernon mustered the only 2 hits on Glennon all afternoon). The wins have become predictable, even boring. An unenviable description of a football team in most cases, but in Cleveland, a welcome over the usual disarray. The Browns are 8-3 because of head coach Kevin Stefanski.

Settled. It describes the franchise now, no longer weaving from ineptitude on the field and tabloid controversy off it. A team full of personalities has pulled back, the focus only on winning. While Baker Mayfield litters his press conferences with rap lyrics and pop culture references, and referees have flagged Jarvis Landry a few times for taunting after big catches, the drama fog that hung over Berea has lifted. Their turnovers are low (6th in the league in turnover margin) and they’ve dropped from 29th in penalties last season to 16th in 2020. A grown up, professional organization has sprouted.

I was against hiring Stefanski, not because I doubted his coaching ability, but felt the unending dramatics, constant upheaval, and tiresome blame shifting ever present in the organization couldn’t be mitigated by a green coach. Stefanski only called plays as an offensive coordinator in Minnesota for 20 games, and even then had veteran Gary Kubiak’s help. The steady hand, respect, and NFL knowledge needed to blunt the Haslam’s meddling seemed unattainable so early into a career, but I was wrong. Stefanski has led, something no other Cleveland coach has done since the return. His personality forgoes an ego, and his intelligence and demeanor have a positive effect on his team. This season, with the havoc caused by COVID, it’s been more important than ever. The Browns have dealt with a shortened off-season, rising cases, practice facility closures, and injuries with aplomb. Whatever decisions Stefanski makes between the lines, they’re minuscule compared to his leadership qualities. His team is smart, disciplined, and unaffected. No qualities are more important.

The next 5 weeks will show their growth, however. Baker Mayfield is a yo-yo, too inconsistent to count on in the most important situations. Cleveland relies too heavily on too few; Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, Nick Chubb, and Jarvis Landry do a disproportionate amount of the work. Are they talented enough to beat the heavyweights remaining on the schedule? Is a January win out of the question? Chubb and Garrett make anything workable, but without good coaching and strong quarterback play, wins in the playoffs are impossible. The Browns finally have the coach.

After failing their early season tests against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the Browns go to Nashville this week, catching the Titans at an inopportune time. Tennessee struggled in late October, early November, but has regained the swell that earned them a spot in the AFC title game last season. A beat down of division rival Indianapolis on Sunday reaffirmed their identity. Derrick Henry rushed for 178 and 3 touchdowns. Ryan Tannehill was efficient and didn’t turn the ball over. The Titans are tough; they know who they are. They proved as much in last season’s opener in Cleveland as underdogs, drilling the cocky Browns. Cleveland’s attitude has since changed. Are they ready to compete in this setting?

If Baker Mayfield is to prove himself a steeled, top end quarterback, this is the week. On the road against the sixth best scoring offense in the league, the Cleveland defense is over-matched and under-manned. Henry will have a big day, and the Browns can’t expect Tannehill to give them the ball with turnovers. Tennessee’s defense is the weak link. They rank 20th in scoring, and 25th in yards allowed. With a respectable run defense, however, they give up the fifth most passing yards in the league. Chubb and Hunt will get yards, but the offense has leaned on them all season. This is Mayfield’s game.

If the organization, the coaching staff, the fan base, and his teammates are to count on Baker for the next decade to lead the franchise deep into the playoffs season after season, he must show that capability. The Browns have done an exceptional job of remaking the air around the franchise in one turbulent off-season. To win a championship, a Pro Bowler must line up each week under center. The coach is in place. What about the quarterback?

The Whip Around

1.Just when the Colts seemed poised to make a move on the Titans atop the AFC South, Tennessee’s efficient offense reappeared, possessing the ball for over 35 minutes, running for 229 yards, and not turning it over in a 45-26 thumping of Indianapolis. During their 3 loss in 4 game swoon, Tennessee had the ball on offense for only 25 minutes per game. If your game plan is ball control, well, controlling the ball becomes important. The Titans can score, but are they built to match touchdowns with the Steelers or Chiefs? Tennessee’s running game is elite, and Ryan Tannehill is in any top ten QB discussion. But they aren’t prepared to shoot it out with the big boys, and that defense can’t stop the pass.

2. The NFL is in scramble mode with the Baltimore-Pittsburgh match-up. They’re expected to play later today, but who the hell knows? Loathe to cancel the game in fear of causing a late season scheduling nightmare, the league office is putting its players, coaches, and staffs in an untenable position. Schedules are important, but COVID-19 has shown no desire to adhere to any of our norms. If the season needs pushed back, or even the (gasp!) Super Bowl delayed, guess what? It’s not impossible. Baltimore is in the middle of an outbreak, with at least 12 players testing positive or in proximity with someone who has. The safety of the players should be priority number 1. The NFL, throughout its history, has shown no care or concern for any of its players. Why would now be different? Get that money, owners.

3. Patrick Mahomes to Tyreek Hill. Made in a lab for each other. Mahomes’ creativity and arm strength, mixed with Hill’s speed, form the most dangerous, exciting duo in the league. How you beat the Chiefs is beyond me.

4. After a surprise start to the season, including a victory over Kansas City on the road, the Raiders’ playoff hopes are teetering. Now at 6-5 and 9th in the conference, the most disturbing fact is the drudging laid on them Sunday, a 43-6 loss to a wayward Falcon team without Julio Jones. Derek Carr threw a pick six, threw for just 215 yards, and got pulled in the fourth quarter by Jon Gruden for Nathan Peterman. Josh Jacobs managed only 27 yards on the ground. The Raider defense gives up 29 per game, Carr can’t afford to fall asleep on offense the way he did Sunday. The Jets and Broncos remain on the schedule, but tough games against Indy and Miami will determine their playoff future. They can afford only 1 more loss.

5. The NFL doesn’t care a wit about its players, Part II. How can a multi-billion dollar league allow one of its franchises to start a practice squad wide receiver in an actual game at quarterback? Kendall Hinton lined up under center for the Broncos on Sunday against a Saints team racing for the top seed in the NFC. This is how you want your product presented? Hinton went 1-9 for 13 yards and 2 picks, but what would you expect? It isn’t his fault the team and league threw him into the fire, hell bent on shoving this season down everyone’s throats while plugging their ears with their fingers and their eyes closed. The commissioner and his owners had no actual plan for disruptions for the virus this season, and it shows. An utter embarrassment, but who’s surprised?

6. Whispers had begun. Were the Rams the best team in the NFC? Could Jared Goff lead a second team in three years to the Super Bowl? Ugh. Goff cannot hang on to the football, nor his team’s championship aspirations. His 14 turnovers tie for second in the league. His 6 interceptions under pressure lead the NFL. No matter how much athleticism the Rams amass, or how talented genius Sean McVay is at masking his deficiencies, Goff’s ball skills aren’t good enough. At home against San Francisco on Sunday, the Rams could have whipped a depleted 49er squad with Nick Mullens at quarterback and become a Super Bowl favorite. But Goff’s two picks (one returned for a TD) and unconscionable fumble, coughed up instead of sliding, chucked any momentum they’d built into the Pacific Ocean. Los Angeles should be a contender, but prove again how fragile championship hopes are with a shaky quarterback. Wins in January with Goff level QB play allows for zero mistakes.

7. The Jets are going 0-16. Here’s the schedule. Home vs. Las Vegas. At Seattle. At LA Rams. Home vs. Cleveland. At New England. Belichick’s Patriots are the easiest task, think he’ll go easy on his former employer? New York deserves this, just as the other members of the 0fer club, Detroit and Cleveland, did. When trashy organizations continue to make horrid decisions, keep oafish coaches, and trade away premium talent, they deserve to run the table backwards. The Jets are an embarrassment to their city and fan base. The ownership is laughable. Here’s hoping they lose them all next year too.

8. We have underrated Aaron Rodgers on the move his entire career. His arm strength garners the headlines, but Rodgers’ movements outside the pocket get overlooked. He’s one of the greatest of all time because of this dimension.

9. Minnesota, the team that won’t die. After starting the season 1-5, the Vikings are 4-1 since, keeping them on the cusp of a playoff berth. Dalvin Cook is second in the league behind Derrick Henry with 1130 rushing yards, averaging 5.2 per clip. He’s first with 13 touchdowns. His breakaway speed is unmatched at the position. And Kirk Cousins decided not to throw the ball to the opposition anymore. Only 1 INT over their last 5 games, Cousins has tossed 12 touchdowns, completed 72% of his throws, and has a 124 passer rating. ??? Such is the state of quarterback play in the league. Cousins isn’t consistent. Has never been. Will never be. But he’ll make a lot more money because he gets hot for stretches, and those waiting behind him for jobs aren’t any good. The Vikings schedule isn’t unmanageable, but they must beat either Tampa or New Orleans on the road to get in. Doable, but Cousins is due for a dud performance. Don’t count Jacksonville on Sunday as a win just yet.

10. Kyler Murray found facing a Belichick defense a struggle on Sunday, throwing for just 170 yards and an interception. His rushing yardage total was most alarming, however, tallying only 31 yards on the ground. For as great as his arm is, Murray has to run to open passing lanes when he’s in the pocket. 5’10”, is 5’10”, no matter how athletic. Belichick has a history of curbing running QBs, and Murray won’t face him again for 4 years. But athletic defenses will learn from the Patriots, forcing Murray to stay inside the pocket and make throws to beat them. Can he do it?

All stats courtesy of pro-football reference.com

Add a Little Defense With Pressure, Guarantee the Playoffs?

After being exposed as the weak link, the reason the team wouldn’t reach their ceiling, the Cleveland Browns defense has taken a turn. Torched early, the D gave up 31.5 points per game in the first seven contests this season. But defensive coordinator Joe Woods’ unit has clamped offenses since, allowing only 13 per. Has something changed? Can this defense remain steady, or will they again take poundings against elite offenses? The important games remaining (Tennessee, Baltimore, Pittsburgh) come against strong offenses capable of hanging 30 in a multitude of ways. If the Browns wish to run over teams on offense, the defense must remain stiff.

Don’t overlook the weather since the start of November. Three games in Cleveland, along the lake. Two featured 40 mile per hour wind gusts, they played the third with rain throughout. Not conditions conducive to throwing the ball. Pass defense is the team’s biggest weakness, yet it’s earned assists from the environment at First Energy Stadium. Bad weather, even in Cleveland, isn’t a guarantee, however. But has something changed?

This defense has allowed the offense to stay in games all season via the big play. The Browns are eighth in the league in sacks per game (2.7) and fifth in takeaways (1.7 per game). Despite hemorrhaging points for the first two months of the season, Myles Garrett was around to force a fumble or drive the offense into long distance situations with sacks. But Cleveland’s weak safeties made them vulnerable to big plays. Ronnie Harrison (acquired with a 5th round pick sent to Jacksonville just before the start of the season) has settled the back line, not allowing deep chunk plays, while also playing strong against the run. While Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph continue to cause nausea, Harrison is proof not every piece has to be a star. Above average can replace horrid and lead to a stronger unit.

Are the linebackers any good? Pro Football Focus seems to think so. Here are the Browns ‘backers ranks:
B.J. Goodson– 20th out of 86
Sione Takitaki– 19th
Malcolm Smith– 25th
Mack Wilson– 82nd

Wilson looks lost in his sophomore year. He’s diving at air, missing tackles in the run game, and lagged in coverage against tight end Richard Rogers on Sunday before losing him for an easy touchdown. The linebacking core is the weakest unit on defense. They can’t afford days when Wilson sleeps. He has to get better.

The others’ rankings reflect discipline more than ability. They stay committed to their assignments and prevent big plays. Goodson played the most snaps of any against Philly (64, or 94% of defensive plays run). Smith (53%), Wilson (47%), and Takitaki (31%) play situationally. Smith is their best pass defender in the middle (6.1 yards per target allowed), while Takitaki handles the run best, grading an 85 against the run according to PFF. None, however, are dynamic. Woods doesn’t like to blitz because his LBs can’t get to the quarterback. On 70 blitzes between the four, they’ve accounted for two pressures and a half sack. Two pressures. Two. They aren’t able to do more because they lack the athleticism to make plays in either the run or the passing games. But they’re efficient. Other than Wilson, they get ball carriers on the ground and don’t give up chunk plays through the air. This will have to do.

Sunday’s game featured two stars, Denzel Ward and Olivier Vernon, who, along with Myles Garrett, are key to the rest of the season in Cleveland. Ward has put together a superb rebound season after his shaky 2nd year in the league. He leads the league with 15 passes defended, allows a 60.7% completion percentage, 6.5 yards per target, and an 88.6 QB rating on balls thrown his direction. All quality numbers indicative of the impact Ward has on receivers. He’s fluid and remains connected to his assignment in man-to-man coverage. Twice Sunday, Ward forced Carson Wentz to make perfect throws to complete passes, and he failed. A back shoulder throw to Travis Fulgham on 3rd down was knocked away. Tight coverage on Alshon Jeffery on another third down crossing route required throws the Philly QB was incapable of making. In big moments, Ward brings it.

This wasn’t a called blitz, but Ward’s(21) feel for the game is elite

With Myles Garrett one of 2 or 3 defenders in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, his dominance has been obvious. But games like the one Vernon unleashed on Sunday push the Browns defense to another level. Three sacks, a safety, and a batted ball wrecked the Eagles’ offense, forcing a wobbly Wentz into poor decisions throughout the day. Though they haven’t done in the same game, the Vernon-Garrett combo collapsing the opposition from both sides of the defense is what John Dorsey envisioned when he traded for Vernon last off season. Injuries have hampered him in Cleveland, but he’s a worthy number 2 pass rusher when healthy. If he becomes more reliable, he’ll force offenses to remove some double teams against Garrett. This becomes the ceiling for the Browns defense.

Vernon is a bull rusher, overpowering opponents on his way to the quarterback

The lack of talent in the back seven won’t allow them to stifle proficient offenses, but Garrett and Vernon will. Great quarterbacks only become average in the face of consistent pressure. It levels the field. After the Mayfields and Chubbs and Garretts, Vernon is most important to the success of the Cleveland Browns for this season. When he’s below average, talented teams can scheme around Garrett. But if Vernon plays the rest of the season as he did against Philly, quarterbacks have little left to do. A dominant Vernon equals a scary Cleveland defense.

The Whip Around

1.The Patriots sit at 10th in the AFC at 4-6, a position quite unfamiliar for Bill Belichick. And while most will blame Tom Brady’s departure for the slide, Belichick deserves blame, too. New England ranked as the number one DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) team in the league last year, but are 32nd this season. DVOA grades every play of the season and compares its success to league averages. A drop off that large isn’t just caused by a loss of a 43-year-old quarterback. Belichick’s defense is giving up 9 more points per game and the Patriots’ turnover margin has dropped from +1.2 to 0. The loss of a franchise quarterback hurts, even more when the entire team hierarchy got built to take advantage of his strengths. But Coach Belichick is the greatest ever, right? He needs to prove he can do it without Brady to keep that title.

2. Joe Burrow’s injury is infuriating, but predictable. Bad franchises remain that way for a reason, and despite having a significant amount of talent in the middle of the decade, Cincinnati still couldn’t win a playoff game. Now in rebuild mode, their star-in-the-making quarterback has a torn ACL and MCL, plus other structural damage. Burrow has the most pass attempts in the league behind an offensive line with PFF grades too embarrassing to type. Since Mike Brown took over operations after his father’s death, the Bengals have been a cheap organization set on saving money instead of investing in wins. Now a young star is paying the price.

3. Once part of the best WR duo in the league, Adam Thielen must make one-handed touchdown catches in losses to the Cowboys. Terrible loss, pretty catch.

4. With an average Lamar Jackson, are the Ravens anything more either? Baltimore is averaging 5 fewer points per game than in 2019. Jackson’s passing numbers are off some (3% less completion percentage, 0.7 fewer yards per attempt), but his rushing numbers have fallen from jaw dropping to good. He’s averaging 1.3 fewer yards per rush on more carries per game. Teams haven’t allowed the game changing play from Jackson with his legs and are forcing him to make throws from the pocket. He completes 63% of his passes, a number that’s inflated because of the space his legs afford his receivers. Jackson is such a dynamo, maybe he makes just enough precise throws to allow his legs to carry them to a Super Bowl. But when have we seen it done before?

5. Alex Singleton makes tackles. Philly’s second year linebacker cracked the starting lineup in Week 6 against Baltimore and has impressed since. 16 tackles last week against the Giants, followed by 12 on Sunday in Cleveland, Singleton is an active playmaker for Philly’s defense. He stuffed a goal line run by Kareem Hunt and recorded a sack and a QB hit that allowed the Eagles to remain within striking distance despite Carson Wentz’s erratic play. Philly has the most talent in the division, but Wentz seems lost, and the injuries continue to mount. But Singleton seems to be a keeper if they can ever figure out what’s wrong with their former MVP candidate at quarterback.

6. Running backs are so plentiful as to be essentially worthless, but Alvin Kamara’s skill set makes him irreplaceable in New Orleans. Like the fear of a Steph Curry 3, just Kamara’s presence in the Saints backfield causes defenses to over bend, cheating in his direction at all times. In any other system his effect gets dulled, but Sean Payton’s offense leans on Kamara in order to hide Drew Brees’ (and now Taysom Hill’s), lack of deep ball strength. Kamara screens are touchdowns in waiting. While Michael Thomas is absurd, Kamara is their game breaker. If New Orleans makes a run, it’ll be because of him.

7. Will Detroit just fire Matt Patricia already? Another Bill Belichick disciple without the flexibility to mold his coaching to the talent of his team, Patricia has tried to force his brutish personality on his players with little luck. A 20-0, listless beat down against a Carolina team starting their third-string quarterback is dumb. Patricia has lost this team and everyone knows it. Just being near Belichick doesn’t make a coach. His relationships, intelligence, and people skills mean far more than who he used to work for. Patricia possesses none of the above. Hire someone who can make something out of Matthew Stafford’s career and allow Patricia to fail as a defensive coordinator somewhere else.

8. Man’s league.

9. Tom Brady Monday night against the Rams on throws over 15 yards downfield: 1-9, 2 interceptions. Brady is the reason the Bucs are Super Bowl contenders, yet his declining arm strength and accuracy down the field will cost them in January. Elite weapons Mike Evans’ and Antonio Brown’s impact lowers when the deep play abilities they bring don’t exist. Add the fact that Brady struggles when pressured, and it’s hard to imagine Tampa Bay becoming the first team in history to play a Super Bowl home game.

10. It’s time for Lamar Jackson to win a big game against an elite opponent. How will he fare against the Steelers hounding, pressure heavy defense? Not the situation Jackson has succeeded under in the past. Thanksgiving night in Pittsburgh, Jackson can reconstruct Baltimore’s season with a victory against the 10-0 Steelers. Although the division is likely already out of reach, the Ravens playoffs chances would take a hit with a loss and a 6-5 record. For Pittsburgh, do they care about going undefeated? Not likely, with a veteran coach and quarterback who’s eyes are only on the Lombardi. But a home loss against the rival Ravens will never do, and Pittsburgh can force the Ravens to run the table to guarantee a playoff berth. The Steeler defense vs. Raven offense. Saddle up. How, and if, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Minkah Fitzpatrick contain Jackson is an irresistible watch. Though the early Thanksgiving games are snoozers, the best rivalry in the league will provide a potent end to the holiday slate.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

When the Rest Fail, Call on Nick Chubb

Over the 22 seasons and 12 head coaches since the Cleveland Browns franchise returned in 1999, they’ve searched for many elusive things. A starting quarterback? Sure. Reliable offensive linemen? Yes. Capable pass rushers? Of course. But the one ingredient that makes the thing work, that turns a franchise from a laughingstock into a contender, is an identity. What has the Browns franchise done well since the return? Phil Dawson has been the only consistent piece the organization could rely on. A kicker. An afterthought until he screwed up. A luxury to have in a blizzard, but not a cornerstone. That was until Nick Chubb.

The Cleveland running back, and Myles Garrett, are the best two players to suit up for the Browns since 1999. And while they charge Garrett with carrying an inordinate load for a weak defense, Chubb’s responsibilities on offense mirror Garrett’s. While Baker Mayfield’s play fluctuates and the wide receiver room fights injury, the burden of scoring points falls on the running game. Kareem Hunt is a splendid runner, Pro Bowler, and dynamic force who will continue to be a key weapon in Kevin Stefanski’s offense. But he isn’t Nick Chubb. For the Browns to make the playoffs, Chubb and the Cleveland offensive line must dominate. The wind and weather have taken hold in northern Ohio, and an already mediocre Mayfield is being managed by his head coach/play caller not to turn the ball over. While the lake effects help the defense hold down opponent’s passing games, they hinder any progress made by the third year quarterback. This is Nick Chubb’s team, and his play alongside the rebuilt offensive line will determine if, and how far, the Browns will play in January.

Chubb’s different because he thinks, then reacts in an instant. Yes, he’s fast. Stronger than most. A powerful runner who doesn’t get stopped with one tackler. But Chubb deciphers good holes from great ones fast. His ability to cut back, and the smarts to make those decisions without pause, separate Chubb from the rest of the league. Chubb’s touchdown run Sundaywas reminiscent of so many of his big runs in his career. Well played from the onset by Houston’s defense, Chubb sensed a weakness on the backside of the defense, made one cut, and dashed into the end zone.

Many of his big runs over his first three years follow the same pattern. Hard running toward a hole, one quick cut, then an explosion into the defensive secondary. Chubb refuses to dilly dally. He’s focused on success. It’s his personality. Nick Chubb wants only to win. His stats are meaningless. The step out of bounds on Sunday proved as much. When the front office signed Kareem Hunt, not once, but twice, Chubb hasn’t complained about losing carries to another back, or when he’ll get his pay day. Chubb is this franchise’s identity.

At 6-3 and with 7 games remaining, the weeding out of the AFC has yet to occur. Nine teams are 6-3 or better. Seven make the playoffs. Games against Philadelphia, Jacksonville, and the New York teams are must haves. Match-ups against Tennessee and Baltimore will decide their fate. The franchise has struggled down the stretch of seasons in the last two decades in which a playoff berth was on the line. This time should be different. Chubb and Kareem Hunt, along with a strong offensive line in front of them, give the Browns go to scorers. The team knows who’ll get the ball in the closing minutes, and they have confidence of success. Can they win a playoff game this way? With their erratic play at quarterback and, despite the past two games’ performances, a still shoddy defense, a long run in January is improbable. But in Cleveland, just getting in has been impossible.

The Eagles come to Cleveland Sunday, a mess of a team. Injuries have plagued the franchise since their Super Bowl win, and with a loss to the Giants last Sunday, we can’t consider them a favorite in the worst division in football. Carson Wentz is a shell of his former self. His confidence is shot. He leads the league in interceptions and times sacked. While Philly is the 10th ranked run offense in the league, their passing attack ranks 27th. The Eagles want to win the same way as the Browns. They’ll try to run it at Cleveland’s defense on Sunday, taking the game out of a mistake prone Wentz’s hands. Myles Garrett and the front four will need to take advantage when Wentz drops back in the pocket. Forcing a couple turnovers early will put Philly in uncomfortable spots on offense. Pressure, again, is key.

The Eagle defense is stout against the pass (6th in the league), but ranks 26th against the run. Guess what the game plan will be again this week? Houston did a fine job for three quarters containing the Browns running game, but Chubb and Hunt wore them down in the fourth. It’s November alongside Lake Erie, so weather will always be a factor. The recipe remains the same. The Browns will run the ball, look for Mayfield to make a few throws in key spots, and hope for big plays from the defense. Philly is fragile and should fold. Another must win against an inferior opponent at home on Sunday.

The Whip Around

1.55 drop backs for Alex Smith on Sunday makes for some queasy moments, but him just being on the field is inspiring. Smith was told he could die, might have his leg amputated, had a chance of not walking again, and would never see a football field. Though it can be nerve racking to watch Smith being chased by defenders, the decision belongs only to him and his family, and he deserves this. The work Smith has put in, and the courage to play the game he loves, is enough. Smith was brilliant on Sunday, throwing for 390 yards and nearly leading Washington to a comeback victory over Detroit. But that he was there, on his terms, matters most. The Comeback Player of the Year award in 2020 is an easy decision.

2. The New York Giants are 3-7, their quarterback has more turnovers than anyone in the league not named Carson Wentz, their best player exited the season long ago with an ACL injury, and they feel like the best team in their division. Dumpster fires and train wrecks are jealous of the NFC East. But Daniel Jones completed 75% of his passes Sunday, didn’t turn the ball over, and ran for 64 yards and a touchdown. Darius Slayton continues to make plays in the passing game and Wayne Gallman Jr. ran for two TDs, but the Giant defense has surged in recent weeks, giving New York life where none should exist. James Bradberry (12th rated corner by Pro Football Focus) is holding opposing quarterbacks to a 77.5 rating when throwing in his direction, has 3 picks, and leads the league with 14 passes defended. Linebacker Blake Martinez tops the NFL in tackles. Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence have combined for 8 sacks, 23 pressures, and 9 knockdowns. If you’re looking to pick a winner of this moribund division, you could do worse.

3. Green Bay is 7-2 and scuffling. Tied for the best record in the NFC with New Orleans, something is off. The Packers struggled to put away Jacksonville and backup quarterback Jake Lutton on Sunday in Lambeau, and while Aaron Rodgers’ numbers look fine (24-34, 325, 2 TDs, 1 INT) he misses a throw or two each game he didn’t in the past (the interception on Sunday is a prime example). Most concerning for Green Bay, however, has to be their lack of pressure on defense. Za’Darius Smith has 8 sacks, the rest of the team has 12. They’ve generated just 20 hurries and 14 knockdowns of opposing QB’s on the season. All the contenders in the NFC have exposed flaws over the past few weeks, and with Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers level of worry is low. But without more of a pass rush, it’s tough to see them duplicating their run to the NFC title game from last season.

4. One problem Green Bay doesn’t have is at wide receiver. Davante Adams is top five in the league. He seems to make a catch like this each week.

5. The other NFC leader at 7-2, New Orleans, has seemed off all season, too. But a defeat of Tampa on Sunday night two weeks ago followed by a convincing victory over injury ravaged San Francisco on Sunday has the arrows swinging in the proper direction. The Saints biggest worry early in the season was Hall of Famer Drew Brees’ noodle arm. Brees is completing 73% of his passes, thrown 18 TDs to 3 picks, and, despite the outcry over his missing deep ball, his 7.63 adjusted net yards per pass attempt is 7th in the league. Now the concern becomes his broken ribs and collapsed lung. Brees suffered significant injuries on Sunday and will miss 2-3 weeks. Now Sean Payton has to decide who will get the snaps at QB in Brees’ absence.

6. Will Payton lean on his love child, Taysom Hill, or turn to heaver Jameis Winston? A move to Hill would signal a heavy reliance on the running game, while a Winston nod opens up the deep ball and buckets of turnovers. Winston threw 30 picks last season. It’s a problem he’s unlikely to fix, but New Orleans offense will score with him behind center and Emmanuel Sanders would become a more prevalent part of the offense. But Payton’s soft spot for Hill is borderline psychotic. Shuffling him in and out for a handful of plays per game is one thing; handing him the reins to the offense of a Super Bowl hopeful team is another. The bet here is Winston starts, but with more than a little Hill sprinkled in.

7. Each season begins with another rookie Lions running back, poised to take over the position and relieve pressure off of Matthew Stafford. Like the Lions, every candidate falls on his face. Enter D’Andre Swift. Given double digit carries in back-to-back weeks for the first time this season, Swift has rushed for 145 yards the last two games, but makes a bigger difference in the passing game. After sporadic use early in the season, he’s up to 31 catches this season, averaging 9 yards per grab. He’s scored 6 times on the season, giving Detroit’s offense someone to pressure defenses with Kenny Golladay battling injuries most of the season. Look, Detroit will continue to blow leads and lose to inferior opponents. That’s how they’re wired. But maybe Swift will give them and Stafford a reliable, dynamic force in the backfield.

8. Man, is Tua Tagovailoa something. This throw to Mike Gesicki, on the move in between three defenders, is so gorgeous. This kid has the goods.

9. Kyler Murray to DeAndre Hopkins is the most electric connection in the game. Murray has grown into a fringe MVP candidate and Hopkins has become the undisputed best wideout in the NFL this season. Arizona is tied for the lead in the toughest division in football because no one can stop these two. Murray’s running ability creates a pause for every defender on the field; they have to be cognizant of the fact he can house it on any play. The extra tick of room this gives receivers is important. But when all else fails, and your QB can throw it up, and your wide receiver can make this play? Game over.

10. Two 2019 AFC playoff teams, struggling, meet in Week 11 and the loser faces some trouble. Lamar Jackson has failed to replicate last year’s MVP season, and Ryan Tannehill is coming off a pedestrian performance in a blowout loss against division rival Indianapolis. Baltimore has lost 2 of 3, Tennessee 3 of 4. With the AFC stacking up at the top, another loss adds to the snowballing effect for the loser. Which quarterback turns it around? Who establishes the power run game first? Tennessee ousted Baltimore in last year’s playoffs by grabbing an early lead and forcing Jackson to play catch up. The Titan defense is middling this season, 17th in points allowed, 17th in rushing yards per game, and 27th against the pass. Baltimore pounced on opponents last season, overwhelming teams with their speed to put games out of reach before halftime. The Ravens need to return to their power running game and dominate a lackluster defense. The Titans have games against Indy, Cleveland, and Green Bay remaining. A loss would leave them scrambling. Can they get hot down the stretch once again?

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com