Can the Broncos bounce back or will Baker Mayfield claim another victim?
The Denver Broncos' roller-coaster season continues with a home contest against the Cleveland Browns on Saturday night. Denver (6-7) is one game out of the playoff hunt even after last week's head-scratching loss. The Browns are listed as "in the mix" with their 5-7-1 record. Both teams are chasing the Ravens, who are 7-6 and half a game behind the Steelers in the AFC North. Cleveland has lost 11 straight to the Broncos with the last victory coming back in 1990. These teams last met in Week 6 of the 2015 season, game Denver won in Cleveland, beating the Browns 26-23 in overtime.
Last week, the Broncos lost at San Francisco, 20-14. Denver's offense managed just 274 total yards even though Case Keenum attempted 42 passes, which is too many for a team that can run the ball really well. On defense, the absence of cornerback Chris Harris Jr. was definitely felt as Nick Mullens threw for 305 yards and had just one turnover. Now the Broncos return home where they are just 3-3 this season.
Meanwhile, Cleveland continued its solid play by defeating Carolina 26-20 at home. The Browns have won three of their last four as both sides of the ball have shown improvement. The offense seems to be finding a balance between Nick Chubb running the ball and Baker Mayfield throwing it. The defense held the Panthers' second-ranked rushing attack to 96 yards.
Cleveland at Denver
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 15 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: NFL Network
Spread: Broncos -3
Three Things to Watch
Even though we are getting towards the end of the regular season, there are still potentially situational things to look at in each matchup. Denver is in the thick of the playoff race and after last week's disappointing loss to San Francisco cannot afford to take another week off. The Broncos finish with a road trip to Oakland and a home date with the Chargers. Denver is back home after three of its four and five of the past seven games have been on the road. Cleveland also has been road warriors lately, playing five of its past eight games away from home. The Browns finish up with the Bengals and Ravens and are technically still alive for a playoff spot. Both of these teams should be extremely focused.
2. Rookie running backs
One of the things that I felt was wrong with the Broncos' game plan last week was that Philip Lindsay wasn't used enough. The undrafted rookie got just 14 carries for 30 yards with a touchdown, along with 21 additional yards coming on four receptions. Against a vulnerable San Francisco defense, the expectations were considerably higher. Royce Freeman was involved as well (six carries for a team-high 36 rushing yards) as he has been a decent complementary option in recent weeks. But Lindsay has been Denver's most productive back as he needs just 33 rushing yards to get to 1,000 for the season. Cleveland ranks 28th in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 133.3 yards per game. The Browns held the Panthers in check but gave up 187 on the ground to the Texans the previous week. Lindsay and Freeman should and need to be busy on Saturday night.
For Cleveland, Nick Chubb has been the primary ball carrier since Carlos Hyde was traded to Jacksonville. Chubb is averaging 5.3 yards per carry with eight touchdowns. The second-round pick from Georgia has a rushing TD in each of his last five games. His usage has been inconsistent as he went from 28 carries a couple of weeks ago against Cincinnati to a total of 22 the past two games. Chubb's rise has precipitated Duke Johnson Jr.'s decline, as he's only getting the occasional target on passing downs. Denver went from a defense that couldn't stop any team from running the ball to a unit that has allowed just one of its past seven opponents to finish with more than 98 rushing yards.
3. Baker Mayfield under fire
The Browns' quarterback is putting up some good numbers this season with almost 3,000 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Last week, Mayfield completed 18 of 22 attempts for 238 yards and a touchdown. He has thrown more TD passes on the road (11 vs. 8) but the same goes for interceptions (6 vs. 4). I'm not a huge fan of Cleveland's weapons outside of Jarvis Landry. David Njoku, Antonio Callaway and the rest of the skill position guys are really inconsistent and hard to rely on a game-to-game basis.
Mayfield is going to have to dodge the pass rush of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, who have combined for 25.5 sacks. They are going to be absolutely critical considering how weak the Denver secondary is right now. Pro Football Focus has some pretty awful stats for cornerback Bradley Roby, who now has to take over as the No. 1 guy back there. Isaac Yiadom is questionable after separating his shoulder during last week's loss. The Broncos have to make Mayfield uncomfortable or else it could be a long night.
Full disclosure: I am now 1-4 in predictions for Broncos games that I have previewed this season. I thought Denver would handle San Francisco easily, even on the road, which would set the team up nicely for a solid finish. Now there's a little sense of desperation in this one as a suddenly hot Cleveland team comes to town. A little bit of the money is coming in on the road team, which is playing with house money. I'd like to think Case Keenum and the Broncos' offense will step up, but I have been burned by this team one time too many and I like what I have seen recently from the Baker Mayfield-led Browns.
Prediction: Browns 27, Broncos 21
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.