Playoff races don’t get much tighter than the one presently taking place in the AFC, let alone the AFC North. There are 12 teams in the AFC at or above .500, and the Miami Dolphins and Las Vegas Raiders are just a game below at 6-7. In the AFC North, just two games separate the first-place Baltimore Ravens and the fourth-place Pittsburgh Steelers. Sitting in the mix in both standings are the Browns at 7-6. They will play all four of their final games against teams in this space, starting with the Raiders on Saturday.
Of course, Cleveland and the other 31 teams in the league have another opponent for the second straight year. Just when it was starting to feel like COVID-19 had been eliminated from the race, the virus has found a second wind. Now it is sweeping across the NFL. Along with the Los Angeles Rams and the Washington Football Team, key starters for the Browns have been hit hard. Before, Cleveland was seemingly getting help at every turn. That includes their Week 14 win over the Ravens, which deserves another look before moving on to the Raiders.
1) Cleveland Started Hot
Coming out of the Week 13 bye, the Browns’ head coach Kevin Stefanski noted that his team needed to score points. Since their dominant win over the Cincinnati Bengals in early November, Cleveland had scored just 27 total points before last weekend. Stefanski noted that his team was feeling “recharged” after the week off, and it sure showed.
The Browns scored 24 points in the first half last weekend and started hot with a 10-0 lead after the first quarter against the Ravens. Maybe that doesn’t seem “hot”, but considering it was their first time scoring in the opening frame since November 14th against the New England Patriots, that’s cooking by their recent standards. The first-half total got a major contribution from an unlikely source near halftime – Defensive Player of the Year candidate Myles Garrett.
There were a number of potential distractions heading into the game against Baltimore, and Garrett’s pursuit of the Browns’ single-season sack record was one of them. The fifth-year defensive end needed just one sack to break his tie with Reggie Camp for the mark, and he earned the record in style. With Baltimore’s starting quarterback Lamar Jackson sidelined due to an injury sustained earlier in the game, Garrett came around the back to strip-sack of backup Tyler Huntley. The play didn’t end there, as Garrett proceeded to collect the fumbled ball and took it 15 yards into the endzone for his first career touchdown
A former first-overall pick, Garrett is once again establishing himself as one of the best defensive players in football. While his name has been considered in the upper echelon, his counterparts Aaron Donald of the Rams and T.J. Watt of the Steelers have gotten more attention in the media. Garrett, however, is starting to get his recognition. Following his record-setting performance, he was welcomed to the “Madden 99 Club” this week, giving him the highest rating currently attributed to players. Garrett also ranked fifth overall in Pro Bowl votes entering last week, trailing Jonathan Taylor, Travis Kelce, Cooper Kupp, and Tom Brady.
3)Things Were Going Right
So much has gone wrong for the Browns this season coming off of their return to the postseason last year. From Baker Mayfield’s collecting of injuries like they’re the latest NFT, to the Odell Beckham Jr. drama, and the team’s average record, it’s been rough. That’s what has made it weird in recent weeks when things started to go their way, as noted in this feature last week.
The good fortune continued last week in a must-win game for the Browns. Baltimore’s defensive secondary was frequently called for penalties that extended Cleveland’s drives. A part of the sport, even the injuries in the game worked in the Browns’ favor as Jackson and defensive force Calais Campbell both exited. After Garrett’s touchdown that put Cleveland up 24-6, Browns fans could hardly imagine what could go wrong. Games are never put away in Cleveland until there are all zeros on the clock. Sunday was a firm reminder of just that.
4) Lamar Jackson is Only Part of Cleveland’s Problem
When the Browns drafted Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah last spring, they seemingly had their answer for “Action Jackson”. In two games this season, there’s definitely some credibility to that point. Forgetting the unfortunate injury to the quarterback caused by the rookie defender, JOK has been huge. He’s been instrumental in two of the Browns’ best defensive performances against the former NFL MVP. With Jackson out of the game, however, the defense was exposed in the second half once the backup Huntley settled in.
Huntley’s inexperience quickly dissipated as he led the Ravens down on scoring consecutive drives in the second half. While Cleveland fans started to sweat, the Ravens really turned up the heat, as Huntley led a scoring drive late in the fourth quarter. The thorn in Cleveland’s side that made it all possible was once again, tight end Mark Andrews. Mayfield’s former tight end at Oklahoma, Andrews has been an issue for Cleveland since entering the league. That the Browns couldn’t cover him and nearly lost the game against a backup quarterback isn’t good. That shows that as good as Jackson is, he’s only part of the Browns’ problem with their rival. Coming out of halftime, Cleveland continued to struggle, and Owusu-Koramoah can’t fix that.
5) Home Crowd Embarrassment
Cleveland fans inside FirstEnergy Stadium may have felt like they helped contribute to the victory. They may try to own when the team found success after the home crowd showered the team with “boos” just three plays into the game. For a group that has long been associated with individuals wearing paper bags over their heads at games, the vocal performance was a truly embarrassing look on national television.
The way the season has gone for the Browns fans echoing their frustrations was expected, just not that early. It begs one to question whether there is a real home-field advantage for the Browns in Cleveland. Without the aid of the crowd, the weather and familiarity may be more significant factors in the team’s 11-4 record at home under Stefanski and Mayfield.
6) Special Teams Storylines
The Browns were put in a tough spot entering last week’s game when punter Jamie Gillan tested positive for COVID-19. There was an inkling that linebacker Mack Wilson would be forced into duty in his role as the backup punter. Fortunately, Cleveland didn’t have to give that story any more traction, opting instead to sign veteran punter Dustin Colquitt who had just become available. Consider that another break for the Browns, because Cleveland was forced to punt five times against the Ravens. Colquitt averaged 39.2 yards per punt, but it is hard to imagine Wilson doing better. There was also a fantastic punt from Colquitt that the special teams had downed at the one-yard line. Unfortunately, the punt was called back for a penalty.
Colquitt’s performance fairly represents the Browns’ special teams as a whole last weekend. There were moments of frustration like the missed field goal in the third quarter, and the botched onside-kick recovery. Still, there were moments of brilliance too, and none more so than the play made by return man JoJo Natson. Following a 50-yard field goal in the second quarter, Cleveland was set to return the ensuing kick-off. As the ball bounced and rolled toward the goal-line, Natson made a heads-up play by putting a foot out of bounds before reaching in bounds to touch the ball. By rule, the kick was therefore out of bounds. Rather than starting with the ball at even their own 20-yard line, Cleveland was set up at their 40-yard line.
7) Woods Isn’t Off the Hook
The Browns are coming off two solid performances against the Ravens. Many may be quick to believe that defensive coordinator Joe Woods and his unit have turned the corner. Not so fast. The evaluation needs to be about more than scraping by Baltimore against a backup. Also, the second half of the game needs to be heavily considered. Nothing against Huntley, but he’s a backup after going undrafted for a reason. Players like Tony Romo have come out of similar situations, and the way the second-year quarterback out of Utah played, he may yet.
Huntley looked more explosive and slippery than Jackson and showed strong accuracy in the passing game. With a final stat line of 27 completions on 38 attempts for 270 yards and touchdown, he looked good. Huntley also picked up 45 yards on six rushing attempts, and of course, nearly orchestrated a comeback win. Cleveland’s defense may rank among the best in yards allowed, but they’re middle of the pack in points allowed. Per ESPN’s Power Rankings, the Browns’ defense is 23rd in the NFL. In games that they’ve performed well, Woods has allowed his players to take on opponents man-on-man. The recent success speaks more to the talent acquired than having them in the right place.
Looking Ahead Week 3
Should things go right for the Browns this weekend, they could find themselves in first place in the division. For that to happen, they’re going to need a lot to go right, and it’s already not looking great. With all that Cleveland is dealing with, the Raiders are rather fully staffed and healthy. The only key piece that Las Vegas is missing is tight end Darren Waller, which, after seeing what Andrews did last week against Cleveland, is good for the Browns. Still, Derek Carr is healthy at quarterback for the Raiders, and Desean Jackson is starting to find his spot in the offense. Las Vegas also still has Josh Jacobs too, one of the best running backs in the league.
Where Cleveland might have the edge in this matchup is at head coach. Since the firing of Jon Gruden this season, the Raiders are 3-5 under Rich Bisaccia. Losers of their last two, Las Vegas has won just one of their last six games. Their only victory in that stretch was taking down the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. Unfortunately for Cleveland, they may not have the advantage of coaching experience. Stefanski is currently in COVID-19 protocol after testing positive for the virus this week.
1) Bad Timing COVID
Just when it looked like everything was going Cleveland’s way on the scoreboard, the team ran out of breaks this week. A flood of positive COVID-19 tests spread throughout the organization like crazy. As of Thursday afternoon, 13 players and two coaches, including head coach Kevin Stefanski had tested positive per Cleveland’s Fox 8 News. The NFL Network has reported another five Browns players had been added to that list by the end of the day.
On the flip-side, New 5 in Cleveland noted this week that the Raiders are just one of five teams in the NFL without a case of COVID. Leadership and execution are going to be under the microscope for the Browns this week as they look to beat the odds. They moved from favorites to underdogs throughout the week as more players tested positive.
2) So Who Is Available
The Browns are expecting to miss a number of starters on both sides of the ball. With the backups starting, Cleveland could face a depth issue on Saturday against the Raiders. The offense appears to be the hardest hit, with five starters currently in Covid protocol, including Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, Wyatt Teller, and Jedrick Wills. At tight end, Austin Hooper also tested positive, but the team received a boost at the position with David Njoku being cleared after missing last week. Fortunately for the offense, Nick Chubb is still healthy and cleared, while Kareem Hunt has been listed “out” with an ankle injury again. Quarterback Nick Mullens and wide receiver Lawrence Cager were activated this week off of the practice squad.
Defensively, Grant Delpit, Troy Hill, Ronnie Harrison, and Jacob Phillips tested positive for COVID-19, and Greg Newsome II won’t be available as he continues to recover from a concussion. Both Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney are expected to be available, though both took days off of practice this week for rest.
3) At Least They’ve Been There
As unfortunate as it would be to go into Saturday’s game without Stefanski, it isn’t as bad as it sounds. The good thing, if you can consider it as such, is that they’ve been in a similar spot before. Sure, the team wasn’t missing this amount of personnel, but Stefanski was out due to COVID last year for the playoff game against the Steelers. The Browns, of course, won that game. That should lend some confidence to Alex Van Pelt once again calling the plays while special teams coordinator Mike Priefer fills in at head coach. This season, the team has also had to play without Mayfield, so there’s that.
4) The Silver Lining
Cleveland’s straying away from the running game throughout the season has been confusing, to say the least. On Saturday without Mayfield and Keenum, Nick Mullen is under center. He’ll be throwing to a receiving group that is missing Landry and Hooper. Mullen did have some big moments when he played with the San Francisco 49ers, but the pressure of a playoff push wasn’t there. This should bring an emphasis to the ground game even more than in Week 7. In that game, D’Ernest Johnson rushed for 199 yards and a touchdown when Keenum started for an injured Mayfield.
It is no secret that teams aim to take away their rush attack. This has led to the acceptance of many for how little Cleveland rushes anymore. They’ve barely recorded 30 attempts in each of the last three games. The Browns will likely have few options other than running the ball. Saturday is a big opportunity for the backfield to show that they can fight through adversity. Can they be the backbone that the offense desperately needs?
5) Last Home Game Until the Bengals
Cleveland is a different team on the road, which they will take to once again after this weekend. Their 2-4 record this season as the visitors is concerning enough. Considering that the Browns will be traveling to Heinz Field and Lambeau field in the next two weeks is almost terrifying. The Browns won’t return to the shores of Lake Erie until Week 18 against the Bengals. That game could be for the division or even for the final Wild Card spot. This stresses the importance of this weekend to stack some momentum that can be carried to Green Bay for Christmas Day. The attitude of the team is something to watch on Saturday to see how they approach this daunting task.
6) Bad Taste After Last Year’s Matchup
The Browns and the Raiders are similar versions of each other for the second time in two seasons. Once again, the weather isn’t expected to be pretty. If you recall, last year’s contest was played in ridiculous wind conditions. That makes the game even more impressive when you consider Las Vegas won 16-6, and the two teams combined for five field goals. The only touchdown of the game in 2020 came in the fourth quarter when Carr found Hunter Renfrow in the endzone on a four-yard pass.
Despite the conditions last season, Stefanski was still committed to the passing game. He drew up 25 pass plays for Mayfield, of which he completed 12. Without Chubb due to injury, Cleveland started Hunt. Still, the team planned for just 16 carries between him and Johnson. The pair combined for just 72 yards, with Mayfield adding another 29 on the ground. On the other sideline, Jacobs was a workhorse, totaling 129 yards on 31 carries. As winter is already here, the forecast for Saturday is 42-degrees and almost guaranteed rain. Will the two teams try to pass again, or will it be a rushing war? Who knows.
7) Ranking the Raiders
On the same ESPN Power Rankings chart that has the Browns at number 15, the Raiders are 23rd. They fell last week after being number 18. Like Cleveland, the offense is top-15, while the defense is in the back-third of the league. Carr himself is having a bit of a down year, undoubtedly impacted by the loss of Gruden. Without Waller in the offense, the passing game takes a serious hit.
The similarities between these two teams are uncanny. Given the hit to Cleveland’s roster this week, their talent levels on the sideline and the field aren’t far off. As much as nobody likes it, factoring in the weather, this could be a single-score game. As in only one team gets a score at all. How about a 7-0 game? That lone touchdown could go to either team.
Follow Jonas Clark on Twitter @jarkclonas
Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images