The Browns haven’t qualified for the postseason in consecutive years since the 1980s. Entering their Week 17 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the feat may still be a possibility, despite Cleveland’s 7-8 record. Everything first hinges on what happens on Sunday for the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens. A win by either team would all but eliminate the Browns from contention, save some less-likely circumstances occurring.
This uncertainty could have been avoided had Cleveland beaten the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field last weekend. With the Packers on the ropes in the second half, Cleveland had the opportunity to claim the top spot in the AFC North on Christmas Day. As written in this column last week, the Browns already needed a holiday miracle if they were to upset the top-seed in the NFL. Instead, poor play-calling, poor quarterback execution, and poor officiating delivered the Browns a lump of coal. Together, they make up just three of the seven observations from Cleveland’s performance in Week 16.
There are 60 minutes in a football game, and every one of them matters. Anytime that a team loses on a “bad call” or “non-call” from the officials, they likely didn’t execute from start to finish. There are moments that a coach could point to where their players didn’t do their part either. The NFL needs to be held accountable for its mistakes, and the league has been shockingly quiet on the matter. “I understand the officials aren’t going to get every call,” head coach Kevin Stefanski noted after the game per WKYC Cleveland, “but in big moments like that, that’s tough.”
The league can’t evade making a statement, because it was the only game on at the time on Christmas. Media members and analysts alike across the country voiced their empathy for the Browns on the missed defensive pass interference call on Mayfield’s final interception. During the Manning-Cast broadcast of Monday’s contest against the Steelers, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is scheduled to be their guest. Peyton and Eli Manning haven’t been afraid to touch on sensitive topics on their alternative broadcast throughout the season. Interesting enough for Browns fans, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will also be a guest of the Mannings during the game too.
2) Offensive Game Plan
Week after week, the offensive game plan for Cleveland fails to align with the personnel on the roster. It also doesn’t account for the condition of the team’s quarterback, Baker Mayfield. Mayfield has dealt with significant injuries all season. In a must-win game against the best team in the league this year, Stefanski was reluctant to run the ball in the first half, relying on the pass instead. The game plan only handed off to a healthy Nick Chubb 17 times. D’Ernest Johnson had just four carries in the game, making the most of them for an average of nearly nine yards per touch.
Just last season, Stefanski upset the sports betting world when he advised Chubb to run out of bounds instead of scoring late in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles. The logic was sound, as Cleveland wanted to run out the clock instead of giving their opponent a chance to come back. The same practice would’ve made sense against the Packers. Run the ball and limit the minutes that Rodgers and the Packers have to score. Instead, Stefanski let his injured quarterback attempt to duel it out with the reigning league MVP. While Mayfield’s four interceptions may not have been his fault, Stefanski’s emphasis on the passing game failed his team in the end.
3) Clock Management
The refusal to run the ball throughout the game while possessing one of the top running backs and offensive lines is frustrating. Not running the ball in the final when the unit is averaging north of eight yards per carry is just irresponsible. The Browns still had all three of their timeouts. Rodgers and Davantae Adams were still on the opposing sideline. Even if Cleveland did score, they were on pace to leave time on the clock for Rodgers to add another “Hail Mary” victory to his resume. This doesn’t feel like the same coach that won Coach of the Year honors last year.
4) Limited Mayfield
The Browns opened up this week that Mayfield has been as been limited by his injuries this season. As if it wasn’t obvious already, the harness that he wears on his left shoulder to reduce movement that could worsen the torn labrum also restricts his ability to open his shoulders for a more effective throwing motion. Despite this knowledge, the offense still had him throw roughly 30 times per game after he hurt his shoulder in Week 2. Cleveland was 3-4 during that stretch when Mayfield attempted at least 30 passes, including wins against the Bears and Vikings. His 36 passing attempts against Green Bay are his second-most in a game this season. His four interceptions are a single-game career-high.
5) Hard-Fought Effort
A bright spot for the Browns last week was how they fought until the end. The impact of COVID-19 on the roster was still heavily felt as Cleveland was without their starting kicker. Combined with the fact that they were playing the then 10-3 Packers in historic Lambeau Field, it was closer than many thought it would be. Once again, the defense came out strong in the second half to give the offense a chance. Unfortunately, they couldn’t force a turnover and play a bigger role. Still, they only surrendered three points in the last two frames.
Chubb ran strong all day when given his opportunities, and Johnson supported him well from his limited role. Rashard Higgins stepped up to lead the receiving corps with 58 yards, catching six of his seven targets. Even Jarvis Landry showed a level of reliability that he hadn’t in weeks. There was a lot working against the Browns, but the players showed up and outplayed the game plan.
6) M.J. Stewart
Stewart gets his own section for his effort on Christmas against. The fourth-year cornerback had another great performance while filling in for the injured Troy Hill. Targeted 10 times by Rodgers, Stewart allowed nine catches, but only gave up three yards per catch. He also put in his own work by combining on 10 tackles to limit the yards after the catch. Last Saturday was the second consecutive week that Stewart led the defense with double-digit tackles. He led the team against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 15.
7) Un-Special Teams
Even with starting kicker Chase McLaughlin, the confidence in the special teams to cover the two-point deficit in the final minute last Saturday wouldn’t have been high. Missed kicks and botched punts have played big roles in losses this season for the Browns. The same could be said for the loss to the Packers. McLaughlin was a late scratch due to a positive COVID-19 test before the game. The best the team could do on short notice was apparently Chris Naggar. Making his professional debut, Naggar wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t great either. The rookie only made one of his two extra-point attempts. He did nail his 37-yard field goal in the third quarter. Cleveland released Naggar this week.
Looking Ahead to Week 17
The football world lost a legend this week in John Madden. The Hall of Fame coach passed away at the age of 85 a few days after Christmas. For football fans who grew up in the 1990s, Madden, of course, is remembered for his work off the field including the Tinactin commercials and the Madden video game. The iconic coach also had an acting appearance in 1994’s The Little Giants.
Reflecting back while looking forward, the Monday Night Football game between the Browns and the Steelers feels very similar to the movie. The Browns are Rick Moranis’ “little” Giants and Pittsburgh is Ed O’Neill’s Cowboys of the film. Cleveland has been the little brother of the Steelers for the better part of the last 20 years. Occasionally they’ve pulled off the upset more by miracle than preparedness. The Browns could benefit from the lessons learned in the movie. For Week 17, it’s exactly what they need.
Ben Roethlisberger is a big part of Pittsburgh’s run against the Browns. With this, Monday’s game gets even bigger. The contest is anticipated to be the Super Bowl-winning quarterback’s last game in Heinz Field. In The Little Giants, Hall of Famer Bruce Smith gives the underdogs a lesson in intimidation. Even after Cleveland’s back-to-back wins against the Steelers to end Pittsburgh’s season last year, the black and gold still feel the most fearsome. Whether the players need to pass around Alka Seltzer tablets to scare the Steelers or Myles Garrett needs to deal with another drug test by going sleeveless, the Browns need to find a way to up their intimidation factor to that of Pittsburgh.
2) Football is 80% Mental, 40% Physical
Sometimes the best thing to do mentally is to not think. Steve Emtman famously told the Giants in the film that football is 80-percent mental and 40-percent physical. While Stefanski could take that point to lean more on analytics, the team could actually be more mentally ready by not leaning so much on the numbers. Gut calls on fourth-downs and two-point conversions could serve Cleveland on Monday. The Steelers may be more physically healthy than the Browns, but if the visitors can be more present in the game by not making the moment of the game bigger than it is.
3) Believe That They Are Giants
When a team is 38-9 against another team, the entire organization can adopt a culture of feeling like the “little brother”. That’s precisely the case for the Browns against the Steelers. Like Emmitt Smith told Rick Moranis’ team, it comes down to belief in themselves. Pittsburgh may have the Super Bowl rings, the division titles, and uninterrupted history. The Browns also have a lot of that tradition, though NFL championships instead of Lombardis. Cleveland is on the come-up with a slew of Pro Bowlers on their roster and they’ve recently gotten further in the postseason than the Steelers.
4) The Browns Do Have A Tailback
In The Little Giants, their game plan was impacted by the uncertain status of Becky “Ice Box” O’Shea. Fortunately for the Browns, they do have their running back, Chubb, and may even have Kareem Hunt back, who is questionable. With or without Hunt, Cleveland has what they need with Johnson to get back to their running identity against the Steelers. As mentioned above, it just comes down to the implementation of the running game.
5) Stick Together
It has been a difficult season for the Browns, as is often the case when a team underperforms. From relatives of players and even the players themselves calling out coaches, fans, and teammates, the locker room feels divided. In his last statement to the Little Giants before getting back on his bus to Canton, Madden reminded the children that they are a part of a team, a family. On Monday night, the lights are brightest and the stakes are the highest they’ve been this season. The Browns need to play as a singular team if they hope to keep their playoff dreams alive.
6) Can Cleveland Do It “One Time” Again?
The peak of the film is when the players are in the locker room nearly ready to quit during the game. Rick Moranis’ character tells a story about how his older brother, played by O’Neill, would always beat him in competitions when they were younger. This one time, however, the younger brother prevailed. It didn’t matter that he didn’t do it again, just that he accomplished the feat once. Already down 0-1 in the season series with Pittsburgh this year, Roethlisberger and the Steelers are likely expecting to beat the Browns. Still, if Stefanski’s team can pull off the win just one more time, it will be one for the ages in Cleveland.
7) There’s No Secret to Winning in Football
Some organizations stack successful seasons one after the other, and there’s believed to be some recipe. Madden taught generations of football fans that there is no real secret to winning in the sport. It really just comes down to consistent effort as a team. The Browns have been consistently inconsistent this season, as displayed by their 7-8 record that mostly rotates wins and losses. Even individual games themselves are a story of two halves. One thing to watch for from Cleveland on Monday is consistency. Can they string together drives? Does the approach follow a plan from quarter to quarter? If so, that’s the start of the Browns piecing together how to be a real team in the league.
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