The AFC playoff field is absolutely backed, with five teams tied for the seventh seed at 5-4. Two of them will face off Sunday afternoon in Foxborough when the Patriots host the Browns.
These teams entered the season with different expectations. Cleveland was picked by many to win the AFC North and make it to the conference title game but has lost three of five to fall into a tie for last place in a competitive division. New England, meanwhile, had lowered expectations and has to be excited with how rookie Mac Jones has led this team to three straight wins.
The Patriots' latest winning streak has them a half-game behind the AFC-East leading Bills. However, playing at Gillette Stadium has not been much of a home-field advantage this season. The Patriots are 1-4 at home and 5-0 on the road, only some of which can be explained by the strength of their competition.
While Cleveland doesn't have the long winning streak that New England does, the Browns are coming off their most well-rounded win of the season. They dominated the turnover margin 3-0 and beat the upstart Bengals by 25 — their largest margin of victory since November 2003 — despite only outgaining them 361-348.
Sunday's game will have high stakes not only to stay above .500 but also because the first playoff tiebreaker is head-to-head record. As if the pressure wasn't high enough on the Browns to beat their former head coach for the third time ever in 10 matchups.
Cleveland (5-4) at New England (5-4)
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 14 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -2.5
Three Things to Know
1. Will either team be able to move the ball on the ground?
Perhaps the biggest question heading into Sunday's matchup is what the health of each teams' top running backs will be. Nick Chubb and Demetric Felton both had breakthrough cases of COVID-19 for Cleveland, while Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson were not able to practice this week due to concussions.
Chubb and Felton have already been ruled out, which means it's D'Ernest Johnson's backfield once again. He did go off for 146 yards and a score on 22 carries against the Broncos three weeks ago, but it's a lot to ask one running back (not named Derrick Henry) to shoulder the entire offense.
The Patriots' situation could be a bit murkier. Harris and Stevenson are officially questionable and will need to clear concussion protocol to play on Sunday. Without one or both, the team would have to turn to Brandon Bolden and J.J. Taylor, who are more useful as pass-catching backs than battering rams. New England has eschewed the run game for screens and short passes before, but that's not exactly a winning formula long-term.
Whether or not these teams have their top rushers healthy, though, it will be a challenge to get things going on the ground. The Browns rank second in the NFL with 3.5 yards allowed per carry, while the Patriots sit ninth at 4.1 yards.
2. Can Baker Mayfield remain mistake-free?
After tossing a combined 35 interceptions across his first two seasons, Baker Mayfield has taken a big step forward this season by lowering his interception rate to 1.3 percent, fourth lowest among qualified passers. However, this will be his biggest test yet this season.
The Patriots will give up yardage through the air (231.4 ypg, 11th) but often take away the easy passes, as they are one of three teams to hold opponents below a 60 percent completion rate. And as always, they can come up with big plays: the Patriots lead the NFL with 13 interceptions after having at least a share of that crown the last two seasons.
In his lone other game against the Patriots, a 27-13 loss in 2009, Mayfield threw one pick and was held to just 194 yards, his fifth-lowest mark of that season.
The Patriots will try to take away the running game and force Mayfield to beat them through the air, so it will be up to the former No. 1 pick to avoid turnovers and give the Patriots short fields.
3. Will Jakobi Meyers finally score a touchdown?
This has to be one of the most bizarre streaks in the NFL. Meyers has far exceeded the Patriots' expectations as an undrafted wideout with 131 receptions for 1,522 yards through nearly three seasons, but he's still in search of his first touchdown.
In fact, last week he set an NFL record for most yards without a touchdown, passing former Falcons running back Gerald Riggs (1,516). And he already passed DeMarco Murray for the most receptions without a touchdown (106). Meyers seemed to have finally scored three weeks ago, but he had a 25-yard touchdown negated by a holding penalty.
Perhaps Meyers will have some birthday luck, as he celebrated his 25th birthday on Tuesday. After all, he played on his birthday last season and set career highs with 12 receptions for 169 yards (and, of course, no scores). Only two teams (Washington and Indianapolis) have given up more touchdown passes than the Browns this season, so this may be Meyers' game.
This line has inched up from 1.5 points to 2.5 points since the news of Chubb's positive COVID test. It's rare for a running back to move the line like that, but the Browns are a different team without him. This Patriots team is quickly turning into a contender and can earn its stamp one with a home win on Sunday.