After two straight losses and a bye week, the Cleveland Browns will try to get their season on the right track against the undefeated New England Patriots, who are fresh off their 33-0 dismantling of the Jets on "Monday Night Football."
Based on preseason hype, the Browns are the NFL's biggest disappointment as we near the halfway point of the season. Outside of running back Nick Chubb, a Browns offense that was supposed to be a juggernaut has been lackluster. Second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield has noticeably regressed, and at times this season, first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens has seemed to be in over his head. On Sunday, we’ll find out just how much good the bye week did the Browns.
The New England Patriots, fresh off their sixth Super Bowl victory, are firing on all cylinders in 2019. Their plus-175 point differential is the highest of the Super Bowl era through seven weeks. Unlike in most of their championship runs, the Pats are led by a defense that ranks at the top of nearly every important category. The 42-year-old enigma that is Tom Brady isn’t as dominant as he once was, but he is still finding ways to baffle defenses (and Father Time) with less than stellar offensive weapons. A win against Cleveland on Sunday would put the Patriots at 8-0 for the third time in franchise history, all under the guidance of Bill Belichick.
Cleveland at New England
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 27 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Baker bounce back?
After losing to the Seahawks two weeks ago, Baker Mayfield told reporters, "I play best when I’m angry." If that’s the case, Mayfield needs to turn into the Hulk in Foxboro this Sunday, because he’s currently playing like the league’s worst quarterback. Among all quarterbacks with more than two starts this season, Mayfield currently ranks dead last in QB rating (66) and completion percentage (56 percent) while leading the league in interceptions with 11. Let me put it this way: Mayfield is playing so poorly this season that after Jameis Winston threw five interceptions last week — while Mayfield and the Browns were on a bye, mind you — Winston was still second behind Mayfield in picks thrown this season.
The last two games, Mayfield has been a measly 30-of-59 on pass attempts with five interceptions and just one touchdown. He’s been at his worst when his team needs him to be at his best, in the fourth quarter — when he has thrown six interceptions and posted an atrocious QB rating of 26.5, while converting only nine first downs. Sure, the Browns’ offensive line has been shuffled around and inconsistent, but they’re still giving Mayfield more time to throw (3.3 seconds) than all but three other quarterbacks in the league.
Of course, not all of the Browns’ woes fall on Mayfield’s sophomore slump. What should be the most sure-handed receiving corps in the league with Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry is actually third in the league in dropped passes (15), and Beckham and Landry have one touchdown catch between them — an 89-yard catch and run by Beckham against the Jets’ broken coverage.
Sunday, Mayfield has to find a way to right the ship against the best defense of the Belichick era.
2. Patriots' impenetrable defense
In 1994, the Bill Belichick-led Cleveland Browns had the league’s best defensive unit, surrendering just 204 points during an impressive 11-5 season. The Belichick-led Patriots defense of 2019 is on pace to concede about half the points of that ’94 Browns squad, allowing just 48 points through the first seven games of this season. The Pats’ D is absolutely dominating games, leading the league in points allowed (6.9), yards allowed (223.1), turnover percentage, third-down stops (14-percent) and red zone stops.
With Mayfield struggling, the Browns are likely to lean heavily on running back Nick Chubb in the ground game. Chubb is one of four runners averaging 100 rushing yards per game this season, but he has yet to face a defense as stout as New England’s. The Pats currently rank second in rushing yards (74.7) and first downs (12.5) allowed per game as opposing teams attempt to run the ball less against them than against any other defense (18 attempts/game).
If the New England front seven can shut down Chubb, the Pats’ top-ranked pass defense, which leads the league in interceptions (18) and is second in sacks (26), is likely to have another big day against a struggling Mayfield.
3. So how do the Browns win?
If the Browns have any shot at beating the Patriots in Foxboro on Sunday, it starts with stopping the run and putting pressure on Tom Brady in third-and-long situations. The Browns defense has struggled this season in stopping the run game, surrendering 154 yards per game and five yards per rush. But the New England rushing attack has been one of the worst in the league this season, ranking sixth in rushing attempts (209) but 22nd in rushing yards (683) and 30th in yards per attempt (3.0).
If the Browns can keep the inconsistent Sony Michel from picking up big gains on first and second down, and unleash the unblockable Myles Garrett (league-leading nine sacks) on Brady on third-and-long, they at least have a fighting chance against the well-oiled Pats machine.
Unless the bye week provided Freddie Kitchens with a real-life cheat code, it’s hard to see the Browns beating the Pats on their home turf, especially with New England rolling. It seems that the best the Browns can hope for is for Garrett to force Brady into his annual one terrible game of the season and for Mayfield to magically find his mojo against the league’s best defense. Not likely, but hey — any given Sunday, right?
Prediction: Patriots 28, Browns 14
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.