NFL Divisional Round

Divisional Round, NFL, NFL Playoffs

Who wins this weekend, and how do they get it done? As always, the pressure falls on the quarterbacks.

Minnesota @ San Francisco

Kirk Cousins won the biggest game of his life last Sunday, throwing two beautiful passes during the game winning drive. His 43 yarder, dropped in a bucket to Adam Thielen, and the touchdown fade to Kyle Rudolph showed the talent all knew Cousins possessed. Don’t slough at those who questioned whether he could win a big game, however. Cousins’ record against winning teams before Sunday was 6-30; his record on Monday Night is 0-9. The win in New Orleans was big and Cousins played brilliantly. The questions were legit, however.

Which quarterback do you trust? The forecast calls for 15-25 MPH winds, so two teams who want to run the ball will be more inclined to do so. Both teams rank in the top five in rushing yards per game, and both defenses are middling at stopping the run. Getting the lead will be paramount. Neither coach wants the game in their QB’s hands. This is especially true of Mike Zimmer and the Vikings. San Fran’s defense is the best in the league against the pass and third in the NFL in sack percentage. If they can force him to throw, don’t look for Cousins to repeat the successes of last week. Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams can lock up Adam Thielen and Stephon Diggs long enough to allow the 49ers’ front four of Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner to put Cousins on his back. Dalvin Cook has to break multiple long runs for Minnesota to score.

Pay attention when either team gets into the red zone. Minnesota has an advantage on both sides of the ball deep in scoring territory. The Vikings score touchdowns on 62% of their red zone drives (10th in the league) and allow touchdowns on only 44% of their opponents’ red zone opportunities (2nd). San Francisco, meanwhile, is 21st offensively (53%) and 23rd defensively (60%) inside the 20s. If Minnesota pulls the upset, it’ll stem from their offense’s ability to score touchdowns while the D holds the 49ers to field goals.

How will Jimmy Garoppolo react to the playoff stage? He prepared as a backup in New England, but the step up will test his nerve. Garoppolo was awful in the Niners first loss of the season in overtime against Seattle, but made big throws late in victories in New Orleans and against the Rams. Jimmy G’s 13 picks on the season will be on Kyle Shanahan’s mind, though. The Vikings intercepted 17 passes on the season. If San Francisco has to throw, Danielle Hunter will force Garoppolo to throw quicker than he’s comfortable with.

San Francisco’s defense has been outstanding all year; their front four is the best in football. They’ll pressure Kirk Cousins into mistakes while their running back trio of Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert, and Matt Breida wear out Minny’s defense.

San Francisco, 23-14

Tennessee @ Baltimore

Any doubt attached to this Ravens bunch disappeared long ago, but Tennessee must be John Harbaugh’s worst nightmare. The Titans revel in the physical style Baltimore wants to play. Tennessee will pound Derrick Henry and attempt to hit A.J. Brown deep after the defense has fallen asleep. Ryan Tannehill doesn’t turn it over, only throwing 6 picks on the season. These teams mimic the other’s style, but only one has Lamar Jackson.

Both teams want to run. Who can stop the other? The Ravens struggle to defend the run, giving up 4.4 yards per rush, 21st in the league, while the Titans fare better, allowing 4.1 (7th). Lamar Jackson is a different animal, however. The Ravens pounce on teams early while defenses are adjusting to his speed. A few designed runs gash opponents, causing them to inch toward the line of scrimmage. Jackson then throws it over their heads. Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards are coming for you too. Tennessee must stop them first.

Discipline from the Titans is paramount. Though it can lead to other problems, they must spy Jackson with Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown and Kenny Vaccaro. Mix it up; give Lamar different looks; just don’t leave him unattended. Corners Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson, along with safety Kevin Byard, must shut down Baltimore’s tight ends and wide receivers in one-on-one man match-ups to have any chance. All others on defense must focus on stopping the lethal run game.

Tennessee has to take advantage of Baltimore’s so-so run defense. Pound Derrick Henry. Mix in Dion Lewis’ speed for a change of pace. They’ll need at least one deep ball connection between Tannehill and A.J. Brown to put the Ravens on their heels. Baltimore has been stingy against the pass, allowing opposing QBs to complete only 58% of their passes and just 6 yards per attempt (6th lowest). Tannehill has had success taking the top off defenses, but Henry will need to cook to unlock this option for his offense.

Baltimore has been a juggernaut since losing to the Browns in Week 4. Lamar Jackson is the unquestioned league MVP. They have the highest scoring offense and 3rd stingiest defense in the NFL and are playing at home in front of one of the best crowds in football. Tennessee gained an enormous boost going to New England and knocking off the champs last week, however. The Titans aren’t afraid to take a punch and will dish out a few themselves. This one feels closer than expected.

Baltimore, 19-15

Houston @ Kansas City

This one looks ugly for Houston. Ten point dogs, the Texans struggled at home to beat a Buffalo team not ready for the playoffs. The Bills led until 4:37 left in the 4th quarter, and, though he tried, Josh Allen couldn’t get the Houston defense to take the ball from him. The Texans dropped 4-5 would be interceptions and couldn’t recover an insane lateral by Allen on Buffalo’s final drive that sent the game into overtime. Coaching blunders and clock mismanagement littered a poorly played game by each side. Now Houston must travel to Arrowhead to face a Chiefs team more prepared than ever to reach the Super Bowl.

Patrick Mahomes fought injury most of the season, missing 2 games and a half of another with a dislocated kneecap. While his yards and touchdown passes were down from a year ago, so were his interceptions, cut from 12 to 5. Mahomes’ injury and Lamar Jackson’s ascendance to an MVP level has allowed the Chiefs an unassuming entrance into the playoffs. Baltimore is bludgeoning people in the manner K.C. did a year ago. Will the relative quiet surrounding the Chiefs work to their benefit?

Even without Mahomes for 1/8 of the season, K.C.’s offense purred. Houston’s defense is ill-equipped to handle the myriad of weapons at Mahomes’ disposal. Tyreek Hill, who missed four games himself, and Travis Kelce are two of the best at their positions in the league. Add rookie Mecole Hardman and the fleet Demarcus Robinson to Mahomes’ arsenal and the Texans’ 29th rated pass defense is in trouble.

J. J. Watt played 50 of 81 snaps last week, an absurdity considering the team ruled him out for the season in October with a torn pectoral muscle. A behemoth, Watt must wreck the K.C. offense for the Texans to remain close. A possibility if healthy, the task seems insurmountable now. The Texans rank in the bottom half of the league in every imaginable defensive stat. They’re last in the league in giving up touchdowns in the red zone. They give up 6 yards per play, 30th in the league. Teams convert 3rd downs at a rate of 48% against them, and they allow 7.1 yards per pass, 24th worst in the league. Unless the Chiefs turn it over multiple times, Houston’s defense will get steamrolled.

While K.C.’s defense improved over last year, offenses can still get them in the run game. Chris Jones and Frank Clark are dynamic rushing the passer from the edges, and will force Deshaun Watson out of the pocket against the Texans’ weak offensive line. The Chiefs allow the 4th worst completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks and hold them to the 5th worst passer rating in the league. K.C. gave up 128 yards per game on the ground, however, and the Texans must attack here if they hope to stay close. They must lean on Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde to grind yards and clock. Designed QB runs with Watson could help slow the pass rush.

Houston’s margins are thin. Watson is fantastic, however, and can sway games on his own. The Texans have to push the envelope, going for touchdowns instead of field goals and taking chances on 4th down. Baltimore tried this strategy in week 3 before they began eviscerating the league. The Ravens ran the ball 32 times, were 3-4 on fourth down conversions, and went for 2 on 3 different occasions, including the first touchdown of the game. The Texans must use the same strategy. This won’t be another low scoring playoff game; the Chiefs offense is too good and the Houston defense is poor. This will take a massive effort from Deshaun Watson and Bill O’Brien. Watson may have a huge game. O’Brien out coaching Andy Reid is less likely.

Kansas City, 30-17

Seattle @ Green Bay

The toughest game of the week to call and a battle of two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Green Bay finished 13-3, but what do they do well? Aaron Jones established himself as a weapon both running and receiving while Aaron Rodgers became more of a game manager in 2019. Seattle wants to run the ball, but their strength offensively is in the passing game. Seattle’s defense is poor in every category, but they force turnovers. Ditto for Green Bay, but the Smith’s, Preston and Za’Darius, haunt opposing quarterbacks. This one may turn into a shootout.

The Seahawk defense is bad at everything. 22nd against the run, 26th against the pass; they don’t sack the quarterback and they give up touchdowns in the red zone. They were fourth in the league in takeaways, but don’t expect Aaron Rodgers to throw picks at Lambeau. Rodgers had only 4 interceptions on the year and hasn’t thrown one at home since week 6. He hasn’t torched defenses like in years’ past, but he also hasn’t had to.

Rodgers put up good numbers by other quarterbacks’ standards, but below average according to his. 4002 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 62% completions are all well under his career averages. Davante Adams failed to reach 1000 yards, and tight end Jimmy Graham again disappointed. Aaron Jones surged, however, the only member of the Green Bay offense to exceed expectations. If the Pack win on Sunday, Jones will have shredded Seattle’s porous run defense.

Green Bay’s defense doesn’t stop the run either, but can defend the opponent’s passing attack because of the Smiths. A combined 25.5 sacks have made opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket. Russell Wilson can move, however, and the Packers have faced immobile signal callers all year. Wilson will slow the Packer pass rush on his own and pick up a few first downs with his legs. The likely second-place finisher in the MVP vote, it has taken an otherworldly season from Lamar Jackson to deny Russ the award.

Can Seattle’s offensive line give Wilson time? Injuries have ravaged the unit. Left tackle Duane Brown and guard Mike Iupati both missed Sunday’s game against the Eagles but practiced some on Thursday. They’ll help stabilize things in front of Wilson. Will the Seahawks force the issue in the running game? Marshawn Lynch has been dynamite in short yardage situations in his return to Seattle, and rookie Travis Homer and flashed on a couple of chunk runs against San Francisco the last week of the season, but only gained 12 yards on 11 carries against Philly. Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have made it no secret they prefer to run the ball. Russell Wilson represents their path to victory, however.

The last game of the weekend is a tossup. This one may come down to the QB who has the ball last.

Seattle, 31-30

 

It’s Time to Talk About Baker Mayfield

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL

The Cleveland Browns have started thirty different quarterbacks since 1999. None have been good. A few were adequate. Most didn’t deserve the punishment on their bodies and careers the snaps in Cleveland inflicted. As far as on-field problems, none have contributed more to the pitiful record posted by the franchise over the last two decades than poor QB play. Baker Mayfield would change that. He set a rookie record by throwing 27 touchdown passes in 2018. He looked poised in the pocket, strong armed and accurate. Mayfield’s performance rejuvenated Breshad Perriman’s career and, overnight, improved the play of the offensive line in front of him.

That Mayfield disappeared.

What happened? Were the expectations too much to handle? Have the commercials and magazine covers inflated his ego? Did he stop doing the little things that elevated him from walk-on at Oklahoma to Heisman Trophy winner? Talent doesn’t erode overnight. Something shook Baker Mayfield last off season. Will he recover from the debacle of 2019, or will this season hijack his confidence? Will his become another name written on duct tape, crossed off with a Sharpie, added to the absurdity?

Baker has been uncomfortable in the pocket all season. His offensive line is slightly below average, the 18th ranked pass blocking unit according to pro football focus. Mayfield makes that line worse. When pressured, he gets sacked 20.2% of the time, 5th worst in the league. Last year that number was 16.2%, 9th best in the NFL. Mayfield is panicky in the pocket, not reading defenses, and taking sacks. He’s indecisiveness in the face of pressure causes him to bail on clean pockets as well. His instinct when he feels pressure, real or imagined, is to run to his right. When this occurs, he eliminates the left side of the field as an option. He also has a tendency to throw on the run, not setting his feet before releasing the ball. This causes accuracy problems.

The crux of Mayfield’s problems are the accuracy issues. Time after time, balls sail on him. The interception over Odell Beckham’s head in the end zone on Sunday is an example. Mayfield had time, set his feet, read the play, but missed his receiver.

Baker completed 68.1, 70.9, and 70.5 percent of his passes in three years at Oklahoma. As a rookie, the number was 63.8%, but over his last 8 games ballooned to 68.4%. This year his completion percentage is 60%, 29th in the league. His accuracy and arm strength were two qualities John Dorsey banked on when he drafted Mayfield number one. How did Mayfield lose his touch?

Everyone has doubted Baker Mayfield since high school. Only six feet tall, naysayers told him he couldn’t play college ball, wouldn’t win the Heisman Trophy, didn’t deserve to be the number one pick in the draft, would rot in Cleveland. The success during his rookie year changed that. Mayfield was a blossoming superstar. Companies wanted him to endorse their products. The NFL put him in a commercial celebrating its 100th year with Tom Brady; he was the successor to the throne. He influenced the organization to hire his guy, Freddie Kitchens, as head coach. How many rookie QB’s have ever wielded so much power?

The Browns then traded for Odell Beckham and Olivier Vernon. They signed Sheldon Richardson. Super Bowl predictions poured in from publications across the country, all because of Mayfield’s brilliance. He was the one, the savior. No one doubted Baker Mayfield anymore.

He no longer had to fight. He was next. Mayfield had a seat at the table reserved. It would be easier now.

Until it wasn’t.

Baker hadn’t dealt with success on that scale before. He relaxed. No one was left to prove wrong. Now he had Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. A few speed bumps were possible, but hell. His new hobby would be ring collecting.

The team’s mindset mirrored Mayfield’s. Not a soul in the organization expected it to be difficult. This is the argument for not blowing it up.

From the outside, it’s a disaster. December in Berea has its own feel. Could this season be the punch in the mouth Freddie Kitchens, Baker Mayfield, and Myles Garrett needed?

As bad as Mayfield has been, the organization has to trust it was a blimp on the radar, a necessary obstacle for his development. This franchise has gone over a decade without a winning season or a shred of talent on the roster. The only answer is to blow it up after one season? Fire the first time head coach, again. Trade one of the five best wide receivers in the league who fought injury the entire season. Get rid of the defensive coordinator whose secondary was injury prone and had his best pass rusher suspended for the final six games. This is the best way to fix the franchise?

Baker Mayfield will be the starting quarterback in 2020 regardless of who the coach is or who’s catching his passes. What happens if he struggles next year? Is he guaranteed the job in 2021? Ask the Bears if Mitchell Trubisky gets a fourth season. If Mayfield is the 30th rated passer in the league again next year, he won’t see 2021 in Cleveland. What happens then? That coach gets fired? Nick Chubb gets traded, Myles Garrett too? That’s the best way to build this franchise?

No second chances, no time to learn on the job. No chance to adjust.

That’s how it’s done in New England and Pittsburgh and Baltimore and Green Bay and Seattle, right?

Does this guy sound like he wants out? Give this team a chance to build something.

The Whip Around

1.How about the Falcons? Since the horrific loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl, Atlanta has underachieved. A loss in the Divisional Round to the Eagles after the 2017 season has led to records of 7-9 and 5-9. Opinions differ, but most consider Matt Ryan a top 10 quarterback in the league, and Julio Jones is one of the game’s best. They’ll post a second losing season in two weeks, however. Rumors have had Dan Quinn on the way out since October. Are the Falcons better off firing the coach and trading Ryan and Jones?

2.  Kyler Murray has been inconsistent, as rookies are, yet looks to be a franchise quarterback in Arizona. He is the only QB in the league with over 3000 yards passing and 500 yards rushing. The Cardinals’ organization knows they made the right decision in choosing Murray over Josh Rosen. With Lamar Jackson’s success in Baltimore, Arizona has proof a hybrid quarterback can win in the NFL. Murray displays more arm strength and accuracy than Jackson. Now, will the organization support their young quarterback as well as they do in Baltimore?

3.  I don’t know how defenses prepare for this.

4.  29-30, 307 yards, 4 touchdowns. Drew Brees’ numbers on Monday Night were record setting on multiple fronts. Not only did Brees pass Peyton Manning on the all-time touchdowns thrown list, his 29-30 also topped Philip Rivers’ completion percentage in a single game. Brees now owns the career yardage and touchdown record and has won a Super Bowl, with an outside shot at another this season. Where does he rank all-time? It’s hard to place him above Tom Brady, but he could slot anywhere from 2 to 7 after the GOAT. The era he’s played in has inflated his stats, but how many QBs changed the fortunes of an entire franchise as Brees has in New Orleans? Brady has earned the number 1 slot, but Brees, Peyton Manning, John Elway, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Aaron Rodgers are almost impossible to slot behind him.

5.  Chris Myers and Daryl “Moose” Johnston struggled to call Sunday’s Falcons-49ers game. Before Julio Jones caught a touchdown pass, Myers highlighted the fact that Jones hadn’t caught a pass for a touchdown in 9 games, the longest “in-season” streak of his career. Thankfully, Myers stressed this was an in-season streak, and the weeks he wasn’t catching touchdowns in June didn’t count. Not satisfied with that nonsense, Johnston expressed his glee that replay couldn’t review holding calls while watching a replay of Julio Jones being interfered with in the end zone that was uncalled by the referees. Dan Quinn threw the challenge flag while Moose argued the play was unchallengeable as Fox went to a commercial break. Sit the next couple out, fellas.

6.  Kansas City only looks better with each passing week. Patrick Mahomes is getting healthier, rounding into 2018 form. No team in the AFC, including Baltimore, possesses the weaponry at his disposal. Travis Kelce is one of the best chain movers in the league, and Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Sammy Watkins, and Demarcus Robinson are all threats to house it whenever they touch the ball. The defense added Terrell Suggs this week, claiming him off waivers from the Arizona Cardinals. He’ll add to their so-so pass rush and should free Frank Clark from double-teams. Don’t put the Ravens in the Super Bowl yet.

7.  Just when it seemed Tennessee would overtake the Texans and the AFC South, Carlos Hyde flexed in the fourth quarter, running for 43 yards and a touchdown. His 10 yard burst for a TD gave Houston the lead before 5 bruising carries on the next drive ate clock and set his team up for a short field goal that put the game out of reach. Hyde’s running is a dynamic Houston has missed and will need it they hope to advance in the playoffs. Overlooked wherever he plays, Hyde has been productive in all his stops, averaging 4.1 yards per carry over his career. Not dynamic, he’s neither the fastest nor the biggest. If he can curb his fumbling problem (4 in 2019) he’ll give teams something other than Deshaun Watson to worry about in the playoffs.

8.  This is a garbage throw, but Stephon Gilmore reads Andy Dalton like a book on his 2nd pick of the day. Is Gilmore the Defensive Player of the Year?

9.  Could Philip Rivers’ career with the Chargers be over? A free agent at years’ end, the team has to decide what to do with the 38-year-old QB. At 5-9, L.A. has missed their window. The juggernaut in New England proved too much for them to overcome. Rivers, like Eli Manning, is at the end of a magnificent career. The Chargers hold the 9th spot in the 2020 draft, and at least six teams in front of them already have a young quarterback. If Rivers is amenable, sign him to a 2 year deal, draft a QB, and allow him to mentor the rookie. He’s up to nine kids, so babysitting should be old hat.

10. Green Bay-Minnesota
The Vikings continue to impress and the Packers are scraping by against poor teams. While 11-3 and leading the division, Aaron Rodgers has become a game manager. His yards gained per pass attempt (7.3) is second lowest of his career when he’s played a full season. Rodgers has only thrown 2 interceptions, however, and Aaron Jones gives him a weapon out of the backfield unlike anything he’s ever had access to. Meanwhile, Kirk Cousins is completing 70% of his passes and has only thrown 5 interceptions himself. Dalvin Cook seems unlikely to play, however. It’s hard to trust Cousins and the Vikings in a huge game on Monday Night without their best offensive weapon. The game and the NFC North title go to Green Bay.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

 

The Media Can’t Wait to Tell You About Odell Beckham

Cleveland Browns, NFL, Odell Beckham

They make everything difficult. The wins seem like losses. The losses feel like organizational failures. The Cleveland Browns are tough to watch and hard to root for. Players fight with the media, coaches, and the medical staff. The pressure to win this season was too much, and no one in the building proved capable of relieving it. Through all of this, however, the Browns will most likely finish 8-8, their best record since 2007. Unlike the years between then and now, playoff talent is in the building. The thought of massive trades and a total remake of the coaching staff is insanity. If every team behaved so irrationally, Bill Belichick would be the only coach in the league with job security.

Rumors flew Sunday morning following a Jay Glazer report that Odell Beckham Jr. was unhappy in Cleveland and had been telling opposing players and coaches to “Come get me.” If true, not the greatest look. Here’s what Beckham’s been through since March, however.

Traded from a franchise and city he enjoyed playing for.
Reunited with his best friend, igniting Super Bowl buzz in his new locale.
Tasked with learning a new offense while dealing with lingering injuries, curtailing his practice time.
Continually targeted by the NFL for uniform violations often overlooked when donned by others.
Bothered throughout the season by a sports hernia that will require off-season surgery.

Visor look familiar? Beckham had to change his Week 2 against the Jets. Murray played entire game with his.

Beckham loves attention and has brought some of these troubles on himself. Is that an indictable offense? What was your last Facebook post about? How many pics have you posted on the ‘Gram today? Face it, everyone wants attention, posting their thoughts and pictures for the world to see hoping to get noticed. The difference is Odell owns that spotlight. He generates clicks and likes for everyone. He draws more traffic than another think piece on what’s happened to Rashard Higgins. If there’s smoke around Beckham, reporters will create a wildfire.

Beckham’s signed through 2023 at salaries of 14.2, 15.7, 15, and 15 million per year, not exorbitant for a player with his talent. His teammates seem to like him; he gifted them his Nike Air Max 720s this week. Freddie Kitchens claims to have a good relationship with the wide receiver. Beckham tweeted last week he didn’t want out of Cleveland. If he wants to be somewhere else, he hasn’t fractured the team because of it.

Beckham’s at the top of the screen in orange socks. That’s the guy who’s a headache and distraction?

In 2007, Kobe Bryant wanted out of Los Angeles. He went on a radio show with Stephen A. Smith and stated he would like a trade out of LA. Bryant said he’d been lied to by the organization and wasn’t confident they’d surround him with the talent needed to win titles. He said nothing could be done to repair the relationship.

How many games did Bryant play for another organization?

While Odell may want traded, the franchise doesn’t have to oblige him. His contract is team friendly and, whether he wants out or not, his best friend is still in Cleveland. This gives the Browns an advantage, a way to massage the relationship. Though Beckham draws attention, he doesn’t seem the type to ignite the situation with an Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell power move. Don’t panic.

Beckham hasn’t pulled a Kobe in Cleveland. Maybe he wants out. Or maybe he’s going through something personal. A trade wouldn’t rectify these problems. The past year has been a whirlwind, and he hasn’t been healthy. After the season, talk to him. Get Jarvis Landry, John Dorsey, Baker Mayfield, and receivers coach Adam Henry in a room with Odell. Find out what’s going on, and what he wants. Better yet, do this with the entire team.

Transparency among the front office, coaching staff, and players will provide the building blocks for what this organization needs: stability. The 2019 season cratered because 53 players, a coaching staff, and a front office were searching for different things in opposing directions. Instead of firing coaches and trading talent to lay blame for not meeting expectations, exercise some maturity. The 2020 season and beyond depends on it.

The play of Sheldon Richardson deserves a mention. If not for Joe Schobert, Richardson would be the MVP of the defense. Far and away the best run stopper on the team, he moves well laterally, clogging opposing teams’ running lanes. He’s stepped up his pass rush since Myles Garrett’s suspension as well, tallying all 3 of his sacks and 4 of his 5 quarterback hits since the 1st Pittsburgh game.

A sequence of plays on Sunday highlights his worth on defense. The Bengals had driven into the red zone with the Browns leading, 7-3. Richardson tackled Giovani Bernard for a 2 yard loss on second down then sacked Andy Dalton on third, single-handedly forcing Cincinnati to settle for a field goal. A touchdown could have devastated the team’s already weak psyche. Often overlooked, Richardson has proved to be another excellent addition by John Dorsey.

The Whip Around

1.No more Rams predictions here. They could lose out or make the Super Bowl and neither result would surprise me. A dominant performance against Seattle on Sunday night featured last year’s Jared Goff (293 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Todd Gurley (113 total yards and a touchdown). A defense featuring Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and Dexter Fowler Jr. can shut down offenses. The team has experience navigating the playoffs. Have the inconsistent Goff and (maybe? probably?) injured Gurley hit their stride? A team no one will want to play come January.

2. With Kirk Cousins at quarterback and injuries bothering Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook, the Minnesota defense must step up. Danielle Hunter got the memo, posting 3 sacks in the 1st half against Detroit along with 3 other quarterback hits and 3 more tackles for loss. He’s fourth in the league in sacks, 11th in quarterback hits, and fourth in tackles for loss. Hunter is making a case for Defensive Player of the Year. The Vikings need everything they can get out of Hunter. Average against the run(11th) and pass(16th) on defense, they’ll need Hunter to slow down the Chargers’ and Packers’ offenses in the next two weeks if they hope to hold off the Rams for the last NFC Wild Card spot.

3. Run Kyler Murray, Run

4. Devlin Hodges has played well enough to keep the Steelers in the playoff hunt. He isn’t turning the ball over and hits just enough deep shots to his receivers to put up the 20 points on the scoreboard his defense needs for Pittsburgh to sneak away victorious. Good luck listening to a Steeler game, however. I expect Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth to come armed with duck calls in the booth Sunday night. Whether it’s the studio guys, the play-by-play announcer, or the color man, they waste no opportunity to call Hodges “Duck”. They’re all giddy with excitement over the goofy nickname, laughing and chortling for 3 hours like school girls. We get it, he has an odd nickname. He likes to duck hunt and won calling contests, how original. The broadcast sounds like a kindergarten classroom after a duck, duck, goose game has broken out. Can we move on?

5. The George Kittle play is the stuff of legends. Who doesn’t love watching a tight end shed blockers for 30 yards? Helluva win by the Niners.

6. The Chiefs proved able to beat the Patriots on Sunday, but how will that game look in a month and a half? New England is going through their yearly swoon and though Tom Brady seems poised for an old folks home, K.C. wasn’t dominant. Patrick Mahomes looks good, not great, and deals with a new injury each week. New England forced overtime twice, only to have 2 touchdowns taken away by the referees. Despite the win, the Chiefs will most likely have to come back to Gillette Stadium for the rematch in January. Andy Reid against Bill Belichick in New England in January? I know who I’ll have in that one.

7. Jameis Winston has thrown five pick sixes this year. FIVE. A handful of quarterbacks rank behind him with 2. He leads the league in interceptions with 23. The next closest is Baker Mayfield with 16. Now the good news. He’s second in the league with 26 touchdown passes and 4115 passing yards. Winston turns 26 in January and will be a free agent in March. What the Bucs do with him is anyone’s guess. His completion percentage could be higher (61%), and he takes a lot of sacks (41), but damn is he talented. If Tampa declines to sign Winston to another contract, here’s betting someone will throw gobs of money at him. Teams can live with the completion percentage and sacks if he cuts out the picks. Some QB hungry team will make a bet their offensive coordinator will be the one to straighten him out.

8. Someone take the NFC East out back and shoot it. I’m sick of watching these teams, always in prime time, fumbling over each other. That one of these unworthy franchises will get a home playoff game is criminal. I realize asking the NFL to change a rule is asinine, but please get rid of the division winners getting an automatic home game standard. A playoff berth for one of these dumpster fires is more than enough.

9. The wait continues for a vintage Aaron Rodgers performance. The opportunity arrived on Sunday with Washington in town, and while he’s been efficient, the 350 yard, 4 touchdown games have vanished. Though he’s thrown only 2 picks on the season, is this Rodgers enough to lead the Pack to the Super Bowl? The defense ranks in the 20s against the pass and the run, though they average 1.5 takeaways per game. While 10-3 looks nice and having Aaron Rodgers behind center always gets you a seat at the table, 5 point home wins against horrible teams isn’t inspiring confidence of a January run.

10. Tennessee-Houston
The Game of the Week is in Nashville, featuring an ascending Titans team catching the Texans off an embarrassing home loss to the Broncos. Ryan Tannehill won’t come down to earth, adding a shredding of Oakland’s secondary to his impressive rebound season. If Tannehill and Derrick Henry continue their recent hot streaks, the Titans become a real threat in the AFC. Houston’s defense ranks 25th overall, and without J. J. Watt up front the Texans struggle to pressure the quarterback. The Titans’ defense hasn’t lived up to expectations either however, and their hyped secondary has been bad, surrendering 260 yards per game through the air (teamrankings.com). Deshaun Watson won’t put two dud performances back-to-back. Look for a shootout in Tennessee.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com.

 

Cleveland Browns: What Next?

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Mack Wilson, Mitchell Trubisky

The Cleveland Browns beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night. The record against their rival since returning to the league is 7-34-1. For the first time, Cleveland has beaten Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the same season. The sheer insanity of that statement is mind-boggling. A talented team that stumbled through the first half of the season is kind of, maybe gaining some momentum. The Cleveland Browns don’t do normal or successful all that well, however. They do lunacy and absurdity.


Social media has beat the Myles Garrett situation into the earth’s core. My thoughts are here. In the meantime, the Browns started a winning streak against two above .500 teams. Can they keep it going?


The offense, while still struggling to manage any consistency, has cut out the penalties and turnovers. Baker Mayfield hasn’t thrown an interception in three games. In those games, he’s tossed 5 touchdowns and completed 62.5% of his passes. The numbers aren’t jaw-dropping, but they represent an improvement. And while the team racked up 8 penalties for 121 yards on Thursday, the offense only accounted for one of those, an intentional delay of game before a punt.


Mayfield and Odell Beckham still can’t connect with any regularity. A long completion on an inside post route set up the first touchdown, but they weren’t on the same page on a second half third down. Beckham was open on an out for a first down, but Mayfield overthrew him, expecting a deeper route. When will it click for these two? Beckham is getting open, but too often he either drops a pass or Mayfield misses him. It may take another off-season before the duo becomes as dynamic as expected.


The same problems aren’t occurring for Mayfield and Jarvis Landry. Nineteen catches and three touchdowns in the last three games, Landry has taken over the number one receiver post, regardless of where he lines up. When in the slot, Landry is too good for the safeties and linebackers matched up on him. On his touchdown Thursday, the entire Steeler defense bit on play action, all breaking right while Landry and tight end Demetrius Harris scampered open to the left. Nick Chubb drew the defenses’ attention, leading to the easy touchdown.

Impossible to be more open in the end zone. Defense bites on the play action


The strength of the offense, without question, are the two running backs. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are most talented duo in the league. Chubb is third in the league in rushing, already with 1011 yards. Hunt is a brilliant pass catcher out of the backfield and has become Mayfield’s safety valve. He converted two long third downs on athletic receptions Thursday and has added a dimension rarely afforded to any offense. Freddie Kitchens must take advantage of his backfield wealth. Get creative with the play calling. Run some Wildcat. Try the option, with one back taking the snap. For the Browns to continue winning, they need to throw early to Beckham and Landry, then bleed clock with Chubb and Hunt.


Though the defense has forced turnovers in recent weeks, issues lurk. Garrett will miss the rest of the season, as will starting safety Morgan Burnett after tearing his Achilles on Thursday. The NFL also suspended Larry Ogunjobi for the Miami game. Backups on the line and in the secondary, the strengths of the unit coming into the season, are stepping into a pressure cooker. The late hits, holding, and pass interference calls haven’t subsided on the defensive side, and with a lot of talent sitting at home or on the sideline, the defense has to become more disciplined. This offense hasn’t proved it can win a shootout.


The overlooked position on defense, expected to be a weakness, has shined all season. Only playing two linebackers in most situations to get more defensive backs on the field, Joe Schobert and Mack Wilson are the most consistent forces on that side of the ball. Schobert is the defensive MVP, and it isn’t close. He beat the Steelers almost single-handedly, recording 7 tackles, a sack, 2 interceptions, and 4 passes defended. Whether stuffing the run, rushing the quarterback, or dropping in coverage, Schobert is dominating. A free agent at the end of the season, Schobert is adding zeros to his bank account each week.

Outstanding coverage by both LBs. Wilson(51) takes the check down away(33). Schobert with the INT


Mack Wilson has excelled as the other linebacker in Cleveland’s base defense. An injury replacement when Christian Kirksey went on IR early in the season, Wilson has established himself after some rookie indecisiveness. He struggled against San Francisco by over pursuing himself out of position. Wilson’s become more disciplined in recent weeks, however, and is now the best run stopper on the team, along with Sheldon Richardson. He’s handled himself in pass coverage. On a big third down early in the 4th quarter, Wilson made a huge breakup of a Mason Rudolph pass to Jaylen Samuels, reading the play perfectly. Thought to be a position of weakness, the Browns’ linebackers are the most consistent unit on defense.


Not much needs analyzed concerning the Dolphins. Miami is a horrible team, tanking for draft picks. They’re in the early stages of a long rebuild and have no desire to win games. The Browns are at home and an eleven point favorite. Despite the drama of the week, the team has prepared themselves to deal with the outside noise by creating soap opera level story lines since March. They’ve had amble opportunity to learn how to deal with the circus.


Ryan Fitzpatrick could get hot and cause problems if the defense is lackadaisical. Fitzpatrick is 12th in the league in QBR (ESPN.com), and is intelligent enough to take advantage if the Browns are unprepared. He’s thrown 8 picks in 9 games, however, and has no discernible weapons around him. For a banged up and suspension-heavy defense, no opponent could be a more welcome sight. No excuses this Sunday.

The Whip Around

1. A play toward the end of the first half against the Rams encapsulates Mitchell Trubisky’s ability as a quarterback. With the Bears on the edge of field goal range, Trubisky couldn’t find an open receiver, scrambled outside the pocket with the sideline open to him, then took a sack instead of stepping out of bounds or throwing the ball away. Plays like this highlight his lack of awareness on the field and understanding of what his team needs from him. Chicago will be quarterback hunting once again this off season.

2. Frank Clark set the tone for Kansas City’s defense Monday night, recording a sack, forcing a fumble, and batting down a Philip Rivers’ pass. A mild disappointment so far in K.C., if Clark hits his stride in time for December and January football, Chiefs fans will forgive the slow start. With a defense that ranks 26th overall in yards allowed and 30th against the run, K.C. can forget about a Super Bowl run if those numbers don’t improve. Despite Patrick Mahomes’ greatness, even he won’t be able to put up 40 a game in the playoffs.

3. An offensive lineman celebrating a (overturned on review) rushing touchdown? Would have loved John Madden in the booth for this call.

4. Pass interference is so broken that the league should trash the entire rule and go back to the drawing board. It’s too subjective. In Baltimore-Houston, DeAndre Hopkins was interfered with in the end zone, an obvious call missed on the field and then upheld via replay. During Baltimore’s opening second half drive, the receiver and corner hand fought during the route, the ball was overthrown by 10 yards, and, after booing from the crowd, the referee threw a flag, resulting in a 30 yard gain for the Ravens. While Baltimore dominated and would have won regardless, these were two huge plays, both going against Houston and resulting in a 14 point swing. Too many NFL games are being decided by the whims of the refereeing crew.

5. After a hot start to his career, Kyle Allen is cooling off. He threw one of the most bone headed interceptions you’ll ever see on Sunday, handing the game to the Falcons in the first quarter. A 3-9 touchdown to interception ratio over the last 4, Carolina is 1-3 and slipping out of the playoff race. The turnaround for Allen has been drastic. 4-0 with 7 TDs and 0 picks after replacing an injured Cam Newton, the Carolina front office may want to wait before cutting ties with the greatest player in the franchise’s history.

Ugh. What was the plan here?

6. Houston’s offensive line gets raked over the coals in the media, but their quarterback does them no favors. Deshaun Watson is 22nd in the league in release time, at 2.79 seconds (nextgenstats.nfl.com). While he makes spectacular plays when scrambling around, too often he’s stuck with the ball and takes a huge hit. The Texans would do well to design some quick hitting throws to get Watson in rhythm when the offense is stagnant. No one should ever hold a team with him and DeAndre Hopkins to 7 points.

Too much dilly dallying in the pocket

7. There has to be a better way to guard elite receivers when they line up in the slot. The Panthers were in zone on 3rd and 16 Sunday while Atlanta lined 5 wide with Julio Jones in the slot. Carolina tasked Luke Kuechly with covering the deep middle of the field. While Kuechly is an All-Pro, he has no shot against Jones. Matt Ryan recognized the mismatch and burned Carolina for 48 yards down the middle of the field. It continues to baffle me why defenses spend the week devising plans to stop the game’s best receivers only to allow them to get matched up with linebackers, especially on third down. Carolina needs more corners and safeties on the field in that situation. It’s an unfair ask of Kuechly to guard that much turf.

8. 60% completion percentage, 11 touchdowns, 10 interceptions. Jared Goff has cratered this season, just in time to cash the 25 million signing bonus check the Rams gave him before the season. He’s due another 21 million on March 20 of next year. While the Rams wouldn’t admit it, is anyone involved with the franchise happy about that extension? Goff is an average quarterback, untradeable because of that contract, on a team built to win in the next 2-3 years. Sean McVay has his work cut out for him. Suddenly the Rams look very average.

9. New Orleans or Green Bay? Though San Francisco and Seattle will have a say, would there be anything better than a Brees-Rodgers matchup in January? Both are nearing the end and have never faced off in the playoffs. The Saints in snowy Green Bay for a chance to exorcise their haunting playoff exits over the past two years versus Aaron Rodgers, the king of playoff miracles? What could be better?

10. Indianapolis-Houston
Seattle-Philadelphia
Dallas-New England
Green Bay-San Francisco
Baltimore-L.A. Rams
An exceptional slate of games this week. If Indy wins in Houston, they’ll give themselves a de facto two game lead in the division with two victories over the Texans. Philly needs a signature win after a so-so performance against New England. Dak is posting huge passing yardage numbers, but New England’s number 1 defense is a different animal. If San Francisco is a contender, they must win at home against Aaron Rodgers. Can Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey slow down Lamar Jackson? If they can’t, will anyone?

 

Typical Cleveland Browns Problems, Typical Cleveland Browns Solutions

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Jimmy Haslam, Mitchell Trubisky

Time to step back and take a breathe. The Cleveland Browns aren’t making the playoffs in 2019. A winning record doesn’t seem attainable. Over and again, each member of the organization has proved incapable of handling the pressures of the expectations placed on them before the season. A weak schedule can no longer save them. What good are wins over Cincinnati and Miami? They’ll be empty calories, leaving fans hungry for something more significant.


The owner, the general manager, and the fans need to exercise patience. There are a myriad of problems with the roster and the coaching staff, but sweeping changes are not the answer. How often does a coach have to get fired, replaced, then fired again before they end the cycle? The Browns franchise returned in 1999 and has employed 11 head coaches in that time. Eleven coaches in 21 years. That’s obnoxious. The blame is placed at the feet of the wrong people.


Jimmy Haslam and Randy Lerner before him deserve criticism for the incompetence of this franchise for the past two decades. Would you blame the success or failure of General Motors on the line workers? They are the most important cog in the machine to be sure, but workers cannot succeed if they don’t have the correct tools, a safe work environment, and the proper training and education to flourish.


The owners of the Cleveland Browns have provided nothing but a toxic work space for their employees. Haslam hasn’t a clue what it takes to run an NFL franchise. He possesses neither the patience nor the wherewithal to put people in positions to succeed. His bravado and false sense of accomplishment allow him to brush his massive failures aside and place blame on others’ shoulders. A leader holds themselves accountable. Haslam has shown no sign he’s capable of self reflection.


The problems in Cleveland are deeper than the quarterback and coach. A systemic failure at the top of the organization oozes below, infecting the entire system. It’s a pitiful situation, and the fans are the ones who suffer. Firing a coach or replacing a general manager provides the masses with hope but does little to solve the overarching issues. The Cleveland Browns franchise will never win consistently until Jimmy Haslam sells the team, a depressing but true realization of the state of the franchise.


Baker Mayfield and Freddie Kitchens do look lost, however. The defense is regressing. The pressures of the NFL are mounting and no one involved has shown the capability to handle them.


On Sunday, the offense moved the ball and committed zero turnovers. The refs penalized the team only five times. Yet in pressure situations, they failed.


6-15 on third downs.
0-2 on fourth down.
One touchdown in five red zone appearances.


When the moment intensifies, Mayfield and the offense cower. On the season Mayfield in completing 35.9% of his passes inside the 20 yard line, throwing 4 touchdowns compared to 3 interceptions. Last year the numbers were 64.8% completions, 20 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. What happened?

Mayfield even struggles with a clean pocket


The talent is there. Mayfield has succeeded at every level, including the NFL. Not so long ago, he was the savior. He’s a quarterback with zero confidence. Bad plays have piled up. The expectations and pressure have buried him.


It’s time to give this group a chance to exhale. The final two months of the season may give them that chance. Can they find themselves somewhere under the rubble of the 2019 season?


The record will be a disappointment. Next off-season will offer less distraction. The national media will find the next big thing somewhere else. The Browns will be an afterthought. Is it possible for them to improve under those conditions? Cleveland’s was the third youngest roster entering the season. Contrary to popular belief, young NFL teams don’t make huge leaps from year to year. San Francisco is an exception in 2019, though Jimmy Garoppolo returned after missing all but 3 games last year, and they added the Defensive Rookie of the Year (presumably) in the draft.


Turning players and front office personnel over every other year hasn’t worked for twenty years. The team has won 18 games in 5 years. It can’t get any worse, right?

Buffalo arrives Sunday in Cleveland as one of the biggest surprises of the 2019 season, sporting a 6-2 record and the third-ranked defense in the league. Josh Allen is unspectacular, however, a middling quarterback who’ll turn the ball over. He’s thrown 7 interceptions and fumbled 10 times on the year. He’s dangerous outside the pocket and will use his feet at the first sign of trouble. Cleveland’s defense must force Allen to throw, especially in the red zone. He’s run for 4 touchdowns, and the Bills offense, though they rank 23rd in the league, excel in the red zone. They score touchdowns on 71% of their red zone chances, best in the league, because of Allen’s legs and an efficient running game.

Frank Gore and Devin Singletary split carries in the Buffalo backfield, though Singletary may overtake Gore as the year progresses. He’s averaging 6.7 yards per carry and is coming off his best performance of the year, tallying 95 yards against Washington. Quicker and younger than his counterpart, watch for Singletary’s carries to rise in the coming weeks.


Defensively the Bills lack stars yet continue to dominate. Third in the league in passing yards allowed, Buffalo shuts down opponent’s passing games. Yet to allow a 300 yard passer on the season, Mayfield faces an uphill battle to find any success this week. Quarterbacks complete only 60% of their passes against safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde and corners Levi Wallace and TreDavious White. They’re in the top five in the league in opponents’ QB rating and passes defended.


It’s difficult to see a path to victory for the Browns this week. They’re facing a confident team while living in a constant state of turmoil. Buffalo possesses the resiliency needed to win the low-scoring game likely on Sunday. The Browns’ offense has shown no propensity to overcome themselves, let alone a top five NFL defense.

The Whip Around

1. Josh Gordon got cut last week by the Patriots and claimed by Seattle, followed by reports of Seahawk players and fans gushing over their newest signing. Gordon is a special talent, but it’s difficult to imagine him succeeding in the NFL, regardless of the situation. He’s led a troubled life and deserves to find the help he needs to sort through his problems. An NFL locker room isn’t that place. Here’s hoping he finds that help.

2. Each week, defensive coordinators scheme to keep from getting beat deep by Tyreek Hill. Each week, they fail.

Chasing down an NFL running back with a 10 yard head start is unthinkable. How much for a Tyreek Hill-Usain Bolt 100M dash?

3. The vaunted Colts offensive line got schooled by the Steelers defensive front on Sunday, giving up 5 sacks, the most on the season. The Colts suddenly look average and injuries are piling up. A month removed from their upset of the Chiefs in Kansas City, Indy needs victories over Miami and Jacksonville over the next two weeks to right the ship before a mammoth trip to Houston in Week 12. Are the Colts a contender fighting through injuries or a team that peaked too early?

4. Speaking of the AFC South, the Texans defense looked the part in London against Jacksonville, but did not pressure Gardner Minshew until he needed to throw late. With a tough schedule that includes Baltimore, Indianapolis, and New England upcoming, the Texans must generate a pass rush. Will J. J. Watt’s injury and the trade of Jadeveon Clowney doom their playoff chances? Or will Deshaun Watson put up so many points that it won’t matter?

5. Philadelphia seems to have righted the ship, posting victories at Buffalo and Chicago after losing 4 of 6. Carson Wentz has regained his accuracy, completing at least 66% of his passes the last two weeks after posting sub 62% percentages in 5 of the 6 weeks preceding. With the 6th best rushing attack to complement Wentz, the Eagles seem poised to begin their yearly chase down of the Cowboys for the NFC East title.

6. The pitchforks are out in Chicago, hunting for the head of Mitchell Trubisky. A year after winning the division, the Bears are 3-5 with an offense unable to score points. While it’s looking likely the Bears will move on from the 2nd pick in the 2017 draft, who could be available to right the ship? Andy Dalton is an option. How many playoff victories does he have? Cam Newton is intriguing if Carolina hands the reins to Kyle Allen, but injuries have mounted for Cam and he’ll be 31 when next season kicks off. The loser of the Gardner Minshew/Nick Foles battle could be available, but Jacksonville would benefit by keeping both since Minshew is cheap. Eli Manning? Please. The best option may be Teddy Bridgewater. He held his own while Drew Brees healed, protecting the ball and allowing the Saints’ extraordinary defense to win games. Sounds like a perfect fit.

7. Lamar Jackson is what happens when an ultra-talented but flawed player falls into the right situation. Only a few organizations are savvy enough to put Jackson in a position to be an MVP candidate. Baltimore has proved again that smart teams win the draft, not because they unearth gems, but because they advance the abilities of their players instead of hindering them. Surrounded by a strong defense and elite running game, the Ravens are making the rest of the AFC North look like fools.

8. Halfway through the season, Josh Jacobs has the Offensive Rookie of the Year award wrapped up. Seventh in the league in rushing yards and tied for fifth in touchdowns, the Raiders’ back is the most impressive rookie in the league this side of Nick Bosa. On some runs, he’s a one cut back, putting a foot in the ground, hitting the hole, and showing off his speed. On others, he flashes an array of moves, jukes, and spins, leaving defenders flummoxed. An ideal combination of speed, power, size, and shiftiness, Jacobs will light up Vegas next year like, well, Vegas.

9. Browns, Jets, Redskins, Bengals. If you were to hitch your wagon to one of these franchises for the next decade which one’s the pick? Jimmy Haslam, Woody Johnson, Dan Snyder, Mike Brown. Maybe just pull the wagon yourself.

10. San Francisco vs. Seattle on Monday Night is the game of the year to this point. An undefeated 49ers squad at home with the best defense in the league against the presumptive MVP Russell Wilson. Richard Sherman squaring off against his old team. Seattle’s defense is the weak link in the matchup; can Pete Carroll scheme a way to slow down the 49er running game? The schedule toughens for San Francisco from here. A loss at home against a division rival could snowball on them. Prediction: the winner of this game wins the NFC West.

All stats courtesy of http://pro-football-reference.com

Browns poised for a turnaround….next week

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL, Tom Brady

No matter how optimistic about the season, few Browns fans looked at Week 8 and predicted a win. With the season in flux, @New England this week is dispiriting. In need of a confidence boost off the bye week, no game has seemed more like a loss going in.

The Patriots have been surgical this season; only one game they’ve played has finished within two touchdowns. The defense has given up three touchdowns all year. They’ve scored at least 30 each week, save for Week 4 against Buffalo, the third-ranked D in the league. Average for most of the regular season last year, this squad is hell bent on making a statement in 2019.


For the Browns to have any shot, they must pressure Tom Brady without blitzing. Cleveland’s front four was built for this situation. According to football outsiders, the defense ranks fifth in the league in adjusted sack rate, at 8.5%, and ninth in sacks with 19. The Pats’ starting center, David Andrews, and left tackle, Isaiah Wynn, are on injured reserve. Rob Gronkowski, known for spectacular catches and violent collisions with defensive backs, was an exceptional blocker, but retired before the season.


Though sporadic to this point in the season, the defensive line must dominate on Sunday. The few occasions during his career when Brady has struggled have all occurred when he’s faced heavy pressure. Myles Garrett, Sheldon Richardson, Larry Ogunjobi, and Olivier Vernon must apply heat. If the Browns have to blitz, Brady will slice the secondary apart. Sending extra defenders will allow him to exploit mismatches the blitz creates.


Still, Brady will be hard to bring down. Eighth in the league in shortest time to throw, at 2.58 seconds according to Next Gen stats, Brady is used to throwing quick. His receivers will run quick routes, designed to get them in space. James White will be active in the passing game. Brady uses his running backs as well as any quarterback in the game’s history. Will Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams return this week? They need their speed and coverage skills to contend with this offense.


New England’s first drive on Monday Night against the Jets was a masterpiece, lasting 16 plays and including everyone on offense. The Browns defense cannot be passive. If they cannot make Tom Brady uncomfortable, game over.


Offensively Baker Mayfield is in for a struggle. The New England defense is historic. First in points allowed, yards, and turnovers forced, it’s hard to foresee any success from the offense. To hang with the champs, the Browns cannot turn it over. As bad as the offense has been, turnovers have proved to be the biggest issue. They moved the ball at will against Seattle, only to give the ball to the Seahawks four times. Threatening to get back into the game against the Niners, Antonio Callaway dropped a sure touchdown that was picked off. The Titan game came unglued when Mayfield threw three picks in the fourth quarter. If they can hold on to the ball, the offense has shown potential.


While watching the Pats offense, Baker Mayfield should study Brady’s footwork in the pocket. Never hurried, even in the face of pressure, his movement to create extra tenths of seconds to throw is doctorate level stuff. He’s the best in the game’s history at avoiding the rush and stepping up to find receivers. Pocket presence separates the bad quarterbacks from the good. Above all else, Baker must improve in this area if the Browns are to turn this season around.

Feels pressure….steps up and delivers the ball


The only chance the Browns have Sunday is for a low-scoring affair. Chew clock with Nick Chubb, avoid turnovers, and pressure Brady all afternoon. An 80s throwback game is their path to victory.

The Whip Around

1. Pete Carroll’s risk averse way of coaching is doing his team zero favors. Settling for field goals and punting on the defense’s side of the field is playing into his opponents’ hands. The best weapon in the league and MVP to this point, Russell Wilson, is Seattle’s path to victories. Their defense is below average. It cannot withstand the pressure Carroll’s decisions are putting on them. Give it to Russ instead.

2. What’s wrong with the Eagles? An embarrassing beat down at the hands of an average Cowboys team should have alarms sounding in Philadelphia. Although they’re still missing DeSean Jackson, the offense needs to chuck it. 12th in the league in run percentage, this is way too high for a Carson Wentz led team, regardless of wide receiver injuries. Jordan Howard is average, and Miles Sanders is an inconsistent rookie. Put the game in the hands of your former MVP candidate.

3. Aaron Rodgers is heating up. Accounting for five touchdowns against the Raiders, Rodgers’ slow start to the season is history. Able to rely on a strong defense and a stout running game, the Pack looks like a contender. NFC teams would be wise to wrestle home field advantage away from the Packers. January games in Green Bay against that defense won’t end well.

4. While hoping to tread water in Drew Brees’ absence, the Saints have been one-legged skiing. Teddy Bridgewater has been what the doctor ordered, completing almost 68% of his passes while throwing only two picks. Another team historically defensively challenged, New Orleans is dominating games on both sides of the ball unlike anyone outside of New England. The culture Sean Payton has built in Louisiana, for a franchise as bad as any in the league before they hired him, is awe-inspiring. After last year’s gruesome ending, a Saints Super Bowl title would be the icing on the cake.

5. Though Jared Goff has struggled, don’t forget about the Rams. With last week’s trade for Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles pairs the game’s best corner with Aaron Donald. With Dante Fowler Jr. submitting three sacks on Sunday, no team possesses star power on defense like L.A. Can Sean McVay devise a scheme to limit Goff’s errors? Will he survive relying on his defense to win games?

6. Andy Dalton with the toss of the year. Nice look, Red Rocket.

7. Kirk Cousins is a dark horse MVP candidate? Things are trending upward in Minnesota again, what with the QB playing nice with wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs again after some passive aggressive comments from each earlier in the season. Washington is in town for a hum drum Thursday Night game, cementing another week of harmony in the Land of the Lakes. The rubber hits the road after, with games against Kansas City, Dallas, Denver, and Seattle on the horizon. Will things look as rosy in a month?

8. Chicago has a Mitchell Trubisky problem. Strong defensively with perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Khalil Mack and Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara at the corners, the offense remains in neutral. Though short on talent around him, Trubisky is struggling, missing receivers and looking lost in Matt Nagy’s offense. How long will the Bears remain patient with him? A team built to win now and coming off an NFC North title a year ago, Chicago wants to avoid getting on the QB merry-go-round again, but may have no choice.

9. Eric Ebron’s stunning touchdown catch was so spectacular it never crossed announcer Greg Gumbel or Trent Green’s mind that he got both feet down in bounds. A beauty.

10. If Washington plays Dwayne Haskins again this year, he should sue for malpractice. Star left tackle Trent Williams demanded a trade during mini-camp and has yet to show up to the team. 34-year-old Adrian Peterson is their best offensive player, and he’s hurt. At least Miami has admitted they’re tanking.

Live look in Washington


Ownership in Washington is clueless. Ineptitude of this magnitude funnels from the top. Twenty years of horrible coaching hires and free agent signings litter Dan Snyder’s tenure as owner. He’s sued season ticket holders and demanded a newspaper to fire a writer he didn’t like. If not for the Browns, his team would’ve been the laughingstock of the NFL during the last decade. Shame on Snyder for destroying a once proud franchise.

Cleveland Browns need a Head Examination

Cleveland Browns, NFL

Talent alone doesn’t win football games. In 18 years, how many Patriots’ teams were the most skilled in the league? Maybe 2007? They own six rings and have been to 13 AFC title games in those 18 years because they are better prepared, execute the game plan, and don’t take plays for granted. Bill Belichick’s teams know their assignments. The emotions of the game don’t affect their focus on the goal: win.


The Browns enter the bye week having given another game away. It’s a familiar story; since the rebirth seasons are littered with contests they’ve handed to opponents. This team is too emotional. Unable to remain levelheaded, the players’ emotions ebb and flow. This causes penalties and turnovers. Individual plays inflate or destroy their psyche.


During the goal line fiasco on Sunday, when a mix of poor officiating and inept execution kept the offense from scoring, they were discombobulated. In a hurry, overly excited and rushed when the situation called for calm. A team psychiatrist would be busy on their sideline.


NFL franchises have developed an identity recognized by fans and players. What comes to mind when you picture certain teams?
Steelers?
Patriots?
Lions?
Chargers?
Raiders?
Jets?


Each team stirs specific emotions, a knee jerk reaction based on years of results, good or bad. What stirs when you think of the Browns?


The bedrock of this franchise needs detonated. Giving up or becoming frustrated is a Cleveland Browns staple. They have done it for twenty years.


Blame the officials.
Blame the special teams.
Blame the coaches.


The excuses need to end and responsibility taken by everyone in the locker room, a decision made by each individual. Are they happy collecting checks, or do they want to be the group that changes the way football in Cleveland is viewed forever?

Good teams and strong organizations are never 0-3 at home. Seattle won on Sunday because they possess the levelheadedness to withstand adversity. The Browns don’t need better coaches, or play calling, or players. They need better heads.


“If you don’t wear brown and orange, you don’t matter.” Freddie Kitchens uttered this phrase during his introductory press conference. It’s a rah rah collection of words all too common in sports. They’re hollow and meaningless. Owners and coaches spout this babble to unite the team with the fan base. Change the mindset and be about something on the field.


Ditch the mantras.


Win.

The Browns are on bye this week, then return to play the Patriots in Foxboro. They’ll lose and fall to 2-5. After, the lessons learned in the first 7 games will either bond them, allowing the team to make a run, or they’ll crumble. The schedule over the final 9 weeks eases, full of winnable games. The AFC North is there for the taking, if the Browns have the stomach for it.

The Whip Around

1. Enough about offensive line play. Except in the worst situations, good quarterbacks can make up for poor O-line play, and coordinators can scheme around it. Good teams have bad O-lines and vice versa. Russell Wilson is playing behind one of the worst lines in the league, and he’s the MVP to this point. The Cowboys own one of the best in the league. How’s that working out?

2. Referee Complaint of the Week
The zebras flagged Trey Flowers for illegal hands to the face with 1:30 left in the game on third down Monday night, giving the Packers an automatic first down and ending the game. His hands were on the offensive lineman’s shoulder. The ref cannot throw a flag in that situation unless it’s blatant. The Lions would have gotten the ball back with a chance to drive for a field goal of their own. Instead, Green Bay ran out the clock, kicking the winning field goal as time expired. The referees are looking to throw flags as opposed to allowing the players to decide outcomes. It’s staining the game and creeping toward making it unwatchable.

3. The Lions’ defensive secondary keeps slowing elite quarterbacks. In consecutive weeks, they’ve forced Carson Wentz, Pat Mahomes, and Aaron Rodgers into sub-par performances. Rodgers could find no one open Monday night. A few vintage Rodgers’ dimes rescued the Pack. Playing almost exclusively man to man, their corners and safeties are winning one-on-one battles, a rarity with today’s quarterbacks and rule changes. The Lions are real because of this unit.

4. The numbers thrown up by Carolina’s defense against Tampa in London are jaw dropping. Seven sacks, two forced fumbles, five interceptions, and 13 passes defensed. A dominant showing by a suddenly interesting squad. While Christian McCaffrey racks up yards and highlight plays, the other side of the ball is producing victories.

5. New Orleans is undefeated since Drew Brees’ injury, and he’s inching closer to returning. The defense has carried the Saints, unthinkable given the potency of the offense. Cameron Jordan piled on two more sacks to his season total and seems to live in opposing offenses’ backfields. A team on a mission to atone for last season’s ending, the Saints look like the team to beat in the NFC.

6. Want to know what a team with toughness and pride looks like? The Steelers are experiencing the season from hell, down to their third-string quarterback, yet dominated a supposed Super Bowl contender in the Chargers on Sunday night. They won’t make the playoffs and shouldn’t win many games, but the stability of that franchise shined in Los Angeles.

7. Speaking of the Chargers, it seems old habits have returned. Losing games they should win, racking up injuries, and missing kicks has been going on since their San Diego days. After a brief hiatus last year as one of the five best teams in the league, it’s good this hackneyed bunch is back.

8. Tyreek Hill, that’ll do.

9. How people keep falling for the Cowboys is beyond me. Three cupcake wins against the Giants, Redskins, and Dolphins had the media salivating. Dak Prescott is average, and running teams don’t win in the NFL anymore, no matter how badly folks yearn for 1985 again.

10. While the NFL has made pass interference a reviewable play, they have no intention of overturning calls on the field unless it’s an obvious error, akin to the play in the NFC Championship game. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the replay center has upheld the original call 24 of the past 25 challenges. An inane rule change has become absurd. Coaches are wasting challenges and timeouts on plays the NFL has no interest in overturning. End this experiment.