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Cleveland Browns vs. Carolina Panthers Prediction: Baker Mayfield Kicks Off Season Against Former Team

Intriguing Week 1 matchup features new starting QBs for both teams.

Perhaps the biggest move of the wildest offseason in NFL history was the Browns trading for Deshaun Watson. Baker Mayfield had taken them to the playoffs, but they wanted more.

Now Mayfield will get his chance at revenge when his Carolina Panthers host those Browns on Sunday afternoon to kick off the season.

Related: NFL Predictions for Every Game in Week 1

Mayfield won't be able to face off against Watson, of course, because the team's new signal-caller is serving an 11-game suspension stemming from more than two dozen allegations of sexual misconduct. In his stead will be Jacoby Brissett, whose 5.3 adjusted yards per attempt ranked 31st last season among qualified passers.

Due to Cleveland's messy quarterback situation, this game is considered a toss-up by Vegas (Panthers were slight favorites earlier in the week). Like last season, Carolina has a golden opportunity to start strong, but even still, the Panthers need to do better than their 2-12 finish after a 3-0 start for head coach Matt Rhule to keep his job.

Both teams are on the outside looking in by most playoff projections, but a season-opening win could go a long way toward helping them to a wild-card spot.

Cleveland (0-0) at Carolina (0-0)

Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 11 at 1 p.m. ET
TV: CBS
Spread: Even
Tickets: As low as $85 on SITickets.com*

Three Things to Watch

1. Can Baker Mayfield get his revenge?
All eyes will be on Mayfield as he debuts with his new team. He's undoubtedly had an up-and-down tenure with the Browns that ended on a sour note while battling a shoulder injury in 2021. But for all his warts, he's a massive upgrade at quarterback for the Panthers, who had Sam Darnold and a shell of Cam Newton last year.

It's also easy to forget that the last time he was healthy, he put up solid numbers. In 2020, he ranked 14th in the league with 7.7 adjusted yards per attempt and 10th with a 65.5 QBR. Sacks were an issue last season (9.3 percent), but his career rate before that was better than the league average at 5.7 percent.

Mayfield will have a tough challenge against a formidable Browns defense. Cleveland ranked fifth in pass defense last season (third at 5.6 yards allowed per attempt), and they have the added familiarity of practicing against him the last four seasons. Cornerback Greedy Williams (hamstring) and safety Grant Delpit (hip) have been limited in practice, but Mayfield will have an uphill battle in this game.

2. Will Ikem Ekwonu be ready for his first big test?
The Panthers have had a porous offensive line for years, and they finally spent a first-round pick to address that for the first time since 2008 when they selected Ekwonu, a Charlottean who went to NC State, sixth overall. And he will immediately be thrown into the deep end when he makes his regular-season debut.

Having quickly claimed the starting left tackle job, Ekwonu will immediately face off against one of the NFL's premier pass rushers in Myles Garrett. The two-time All-Pro tied for fifth in the NFL with 16.0 sacks in 2021 and has 51.5 over 57 games the last four seasons.

Ekwonu isn't the only new face on the line, either, as the Panthers spent $19.6 million guaranteed on guard Austin Corbett and another $6 million on center Pat Elflein. Improving on last year's 29th-ranked pass block win rate (50 percent) will be crucial, especially against a team that ranked tied for ninth in sacks last season (43).

3. Can Carolina slow Cleveland's rushing attack?
With Jacoby Brissett generously playing the caretaker role for this offense, the Browns will have to rely even more on the ground game than normal. And this is already a team that ran 46.0 percent of the time last year, sixth most in the NFL.

That was for good reason, of course. The Browns ranked first in the NFL with 5.1 yards per attempt despite losing Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt for portions of the season. There are some changes to the line, as Corbett left for Carolina and they brought in center Ethan Pocic on a one-year deal, but this should remain one of the league's better offensive lines (72 percent run block win rate, eighth in NFL).

Teams ran over Carolina a good bit last season, but that was often because they were up for most of the game. The Panthers may have ranked 18th in yards allowed per game (113.8), but they were eighth on a rate basis (4.1 ypc). And after adding tackle Matt Ioannidis and linebacker Damien Wilson, this beefed-up unit should be better prepared to stop the run.

Final Analysis

The Browns would be big road favorites if Watson were playing, but having Brissett under center makes a world of difference. With Rhule and Mayfield playing for their NFL futures, the Panthers should have just enough to start the season on a high note.

Prediction: Panthers 23, Browns 20

*Price as of publication.