The Cleveland Browns and the Green Bay Packers are headed in two opposite directions entering their game on Christmas Day. The hope for the Packers is that Santa gifts them a win that continues their march toward NFC home-field advantage.
For the Browns, they just need a victory to take their playoff bid off life support.
That's how big a swing it was for Cleveland in the closing seconds of a devastating Monday night loss against the Las Vegas Raiders. As Daniel Carlson's field goal sailed through the uprights, the Browns went from leading the AFC North to dead last in the four-team division. The margin is razor-thin in a conference where no playoff spots have been clinched with three weeks remaining. Thirteen teams have a record of .500 or better, and 12 of them are separated by just two games.
That puts the Browns in desperation mode heading to the confines of Lambeau Field, one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL. It's why the Packers are so keen on securing the No. 1 seed (6-0 at home this season), and they enter the holiday season red-hot, averaging 37 points per game in three wins over the Rams, Bears, and Ravens.
Can the Browns stop Aaron Rodgers from steamrolling through them? Their defense may need to step up as it remains unclear whether starting quarterback Baker Mayfield will be cleared to lead the offense.
Cleveland (7-7) at Green Bay (11-3)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 24 at 4:30 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Packers -7.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Who will start at quarterback for the Browns?
It remains unclear whether Mayfield will start Christmas Day as he remains away from the team after COVID protocols kept him out of Monday night's contest against the Raiders. In all, 22 players were still on the Browns' Reserve/COVID-19 list prior to kickoff. While that number is expected to be drastically reduced by Saturday, the fact that Mayfield and backup quarterback Case Keenum remain on it is cause for immediate concern.
Without a negative test, Mayfield is in line to return Saturday based on NFL rules, meaning no practice for nearly two weeks before returning to the field against one of the sport's top teams.
Even if Mayfield plays, he's been a shell of his healthy self for months. He's averaged less than one passing touchdown per game this season (13 TD, 7 INT) while posting a measly 5.8 yards per attempt over the last month. Opponents realize he's struggling to throw the deep ball and have crowded the line of scrimmage, making it harder for Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb to establish a rhythm on the ground.
Battling a myriad of injuries this season, from his right knee to a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder, one could argue the extra rest might help Mayfield a little bit. But he'll have trouble shaking off the rust with a Packers defense that has forced six turnovers during their three-game win streak.
2. Can the Packers offense be stopped?
It remains to be seen how Rodgers will do in the NFL MVP race after controversial comments around his COVID-19 vaccination status were paired with him missing a week after contracting the virus.
But while Rodgers' off-field persona remains controversial, he continues to put up MVP-style numbers on it. The quarterback has 13 touchdowns and no interceptions in the last four games, putting up 300+ yards in three of them. Much of that yardage has come by way of his top target; wide receiver Davante Adams has 384 yards and five touchdowns during that stretch. The Pro Bowl tandem remains inside the top five in the conference in every important category despite each missing at least one game this season.
Can the Browns defense stop them? Let's put it this way: three cornerbacks and a safety still on the COVID list sure don't help matters much.
3. Who stays turnover-free?Both of these teams pride themselves on taking care of the football. The Packers' 10 giveaways are the fewest in the NFL; they've coughed the ball up just once during the last month. The Browns, meanwhile, remain tied for fourth with 14 giveaways despite their offensive troubles. Even third-string quarterback Nick Mullens could be commended Monday for a turnover-free performance; not bad for a guy who was signed from the practice squad on short notice.
A turnover for the Browns early at Lambeau could spell disaster for a team that needs some luck on its side to pull the upset. A model for them could be the Chicago Bears from two weeks ago, benefitting from a 97-yard punt return to pull ahead 27-21 at the half. It was just the second time all season Green Bay had trailed at home at halftime; the other was to the Detroit Lions in Week 2. That was a very different time for Green Bay, an ugly six-quarter start to the season before the Packers woke up and put a vastly inferior opponent away during the second half.
The Packers enter this game with superior talent at positions on both sides of the ball. The sheer numbers of Browns still struggling to get off the COVID list (check this link with updates up until kickoff) make it difficult to band their team together for a playoff run that's clearly fading.
Expect the Packers to keep rolling as they look to pad their one-game advantage over the rest of the NFC.