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.
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