It's not hyperbole to say that the future of the NFL will be on full display in this Browns-Chargers showdown on Sunday. No kidding. These two teams both come in with 3-1 records and are led by hotshot young quarterbacks that have made a difference in this league already. They are also both steered by youthful head coaches who have turned these franchises into winners in Kevin Stefanski and Brandon Staley, respectively.
After going 12-6 last year and 3-1 so far this season, Stefanski has already won more games than the three Cleveland coaches that preceded him combined (14 wins). The Chargers, meanwhile, got off to a 3-9 start last year, but there is no such implosion this year. Under Staley in his first season at the helm, the Chargers look like a completely different team with their 3-1 start. Keep in mind, they beat the Super Bowl runner-up Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead two weeks ago for their best win of the season so far. They would actually be 4-0 if not for a touchdown called back by penalty in the three-point loss to Dallas. But, thems the breaks.
This could be the most entertaining game of the weekend.
Cleveland (3-1) at Los Angeles (3-1)
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 10 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Los Angeles -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Chargers continue to flex their muscles on offense?
Justin Herbert has been throwing BBs this year for the Chargers and his numbers have been good. Not great, but good. The best part is that he has taken care of the ball, including just three interceptions in his 164 pass attempts, none of which came in his last two games. His passer rating has been in the triple digits in all four games this season as well. And for a second-year guy, he has certainly shown some moxie in changing his targets on the fly.
Tight end Jared Cook stepped up last week with six catches for 70 yards, which was a big shot in the arm for the offense since Mike Williams had just one catch and Keenan Allen had just 36 yards on his seven catches. Running back Austin Ekeler also had his best game of the season, romping for 117 yards on just 15 carries. So the offense has shown plenty of flexibility when one thing isn't working. Facing that ornery Browns defense will require, as Chief Gunnery Sergent Highway said in "Heartbreak Ridge," the Bolts to "adapt, improvise, overcome" this week.
2. Will the Browns stay grounded?
On the Browns' side of things, look for the ground game to be the bell cow this week for two reasons. The first reason is the obvious one: because they have a strong running offense and the Chargers' run defense has been Swiss cheese thus far. Going into Week 5, the Browns rank at the top of the NFL with 708 rushing yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Nick Chubb is the marquee back, ranking second in the league with 362 rushing yards and a hearty 5.2 yards per carry. And the second reason is, Baker Mayfield has gone cold. He hit on 40 of 49 passes in his first two games, but in his last two games, the former Red Raider/Sooner has hit just 34 of his 64 passes. It was revealed this week that Mayfield is dealing with an injury, which could attribute to his struggles.
On top of that, the Browns' O-line has allowed Mayfield to be sacked eight times for 55 yards in losses. Against the Vikings last week, the Browns managed just 14 points against what was the 28th-ranked defense in the league going in.
3. Watch out for these Dawgs on D
But again, that Cleveland defense is totally nails, man. Last week at Minnesota the Browns gave up 80 yards on 15 plays on the Vikes' opening drive. After that, they held the Norsemen to just 175 yards and zero points. Oof. Overall, Cleveland's D has allowed 184 yards per game through the air and just 67 yards per game on the ground, good for third in the entire NFL on both counts. On top of that, they are second in the league with 14 sacks. Even though defensive coordinator Joe Woods brought pressure from all different angles to keep Kirk Cousins under duress last week, with talents like Myles Garrett (NFL-leading six sacks) and Jadeveon Clowney haunting the pocket, the Chargers' offensive line will need to play their best game.
Both teams have pretty stout defenses, especially with the Browns, as noted above with their third-ranked unit. The Chargers have made vast improvements defensively this season, especially in their air defense. But offensively, Herbert and Co. seem to be on the brink of something special.
It's too early to talk about "must-wins" here. But it is worth noting that both teams could really use the win this week because of daunting games ahead. The Browns will have Arizona and Denver in the next two weeks and the Chargers face Baltimore and New England with a bye week in between. But while digging for factoids on this game, I came upon this gem: Cleveland has gone 1-9 in its last 10 trips to play games west of the Rockies. The only win came in 2012 in Oakland against the Raiders.
The Browns will be 1-10 after this one.
Prediction: Chargers 17, Browns 7
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.