The Cleveland Browns head to Nashville to take on the Tennessee Titans on Sunday for what could be Week 13's top matchup. Both teams are 8-3, tied for the fourth-best record in the NFL overall so this game could end up having huge ramifications as we get closer to setting the AFC playoff bracket.
Fresh off a 27-25 win against Jacksonville last week, the Browns are currently hanging on to the fifth seed in the AFC and are off to their best start since 1994. Another win on Sunday would put Cleveland one step closer toward solidifying a playoff spot and ending the league's longest active playoff drought of 18 years. However, the Browns are still looking for a signature win and trying to prove they can beat more than just bad teams. Cleveland is just 1-3 against teams with a winning record this season with a combined 13 points in those three losses. A win against the Titans would not only put a feather in the Browns' cap, but may also prove they belong with the contenders.
On the other hand, the Titans can't figure out what they want to be. Legit? Just okay? Kind of good? Really good? Three weeks ago, the Titans looked marginal. They had lost three of their last four games and were knocked out of first place in the AFC South with a 17-point home whooping from Indianapolis on "Thursday Night Football." But after blasting those same Colts 45-26 on the road last Sunday, Tennessee has won back-to-back games, is back in first place in the division, and looks more like the squad that blasted off to a 5-0 start this season. At this point, the Titans are a near-lock to make the playoffs but whether or not they belong in the conversation with the likes of the AFC heavyweights remains to be seen.
Cleveland at Tennessee
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 6, at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Tennessee -6
Three Things to Watch
1. The return of Myles Garrett
There are only a handful of defensive players in the league that offensive coordinators have to game plan around. Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, and Von Miller, when he's healthy. Myles Garrett's name also is on that short list.
Garrett's pass-rushing skills are elite. His 9.5 sacks this season rank third in the league, even after missing the last two games while on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Garrett is a major factor in stopping the run as well. With Garrett in the lineup, the Browns are a top-10 rushing defense. Without him, the unit has struggled across the board.
Last week, Cleveland won the game against Jacksonville but the defense didn't force any turnovers or record a single sack against the Jaguars offense, which was led by third-string, journeyman quarterback Mike Glennon. On top of that, undrafted free agent running back James Robinson ran for a career-high 128 yards and averaged 5.8 yards a carry. Two weeks ago, the Eagles' Miles Sanders ripped off 96 rushing yards rushing in the first half alone in the first game Garrett missed. In Week 8 against Las Vegas, Garrett only played 33 snaps, and the Raiders finished with 209 rushing yards in their 10-point win.
Fortunately for the Browns, Garrett is set to return to the lineup just in time to take on Derrick Henry, the NFL's leading rusher.
2. Runner's delight
Speaking of Henry, if you were not aware — he's very good. Like, best in the NFL at running the ball type of good. Henry (1,257 yards) finds himself atop of the rushing leaderboard yet again after a dominant performance last Sunday in Indianapolis when he ran for 178 yards and three touchdowns, all of those coming in the first half. In his last three games, Henry has totaled 414 yards on the ground, four touchdowns, and a healthy 5.4 yards per carry. But he won't be the only running back of note in Sunday's showdown.
If Henry is the best running back in the league, then the Browns' Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are the NFL's best backfield. Chubb (719 yards in seven games) and Hunt (706) are both top-10 rushers this season, ranking seventh and ninth in the league, respectively. They are currently on pace to be the second running back tandem to each break the 1,000-yard rushing mark since Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams did it in 2009 with the Panthers.
Chubb is the Browns' bell cow. He is the big-play back capable of breaking off huge runs week after week. He's notorious for wearing down opposing defenses as the game goes on, just like Henry. In his last three games, Chubb is averaging 128 yards per game, 6.6 yards per carry, and has 14 runs of 10 yards or more. His 102.7 rushing yards per game rank third behind only Henry (114.3) and Dalvin Cook (113), while his 6.3 yards per carry is the best in the NFL for a running back.
Hunt is the Browns' utility back, capable of putting his stamping on a game in a number of ways. He is especially dangerous in space and as a pass catcher in the red zone. Seven of his eight total touchdowns have come in the red zone, while all of his team-leading four touchdown catches have been from 10 yards and in. Together, Chubb and Hunt form one of the most dynamic backfields the NFL has seen since, well, maybe ever? They're certainly the best that this Titans defense has seen this season.
Between the three of them — Henry, Chubb, and Hunt — I wouldn't be surprised to see a total of at least 65 touches.
3. Can Baker be better?
Much is on the line for the Browns' young and charismatic franchise quarterback, Baker Mayfield. On the surface it seems that Mayfield has improved from last year's disastrous sophomore season. He's completing a higher number of passes (61.2 percent vs. 59.4), throwing more touchdowns (17 vs. 23), fewer interceptions (7 vs. 21), and is more efficient (92.3 passer rating vs. 78.8). Despite his apparent general improvement and the Browns being on the cusp of making their first playoff appearance since NSYNC broke up, Mayfield has still yet to prove he's the long-term answer for Cleveland.
Mayfield has played well enough this season to beat bad teams. Great. Kyle Orton and Josh McCown did that, too. But playing just well enough against bad teams doesn't make you a franchise quarterback, it makes you Charlie Whitehurst. Playing well and winning games against good teams, playoff-caliber teams, makes you the guy. Mayfield has yet to play well enough to beat good teams this season, or in his career at all for that matter.
In Cleveland's three losses this season, all against teams with winning records (Ravens, Steelers, Raiders), Mayfield has been flat-out awful. In those three games, Mayfield has thrown just two touchdowns to three interceptions. He's completed only 52 percent of his passes, posted a grisly 60.5 passer rating, and a measly 5.2 yards per attempt. He's been held under 170 yards passing in each of those losses.
At best, he was a non-factor in those games. At worst, he's the anchor weighing down the best Browns offense since Derek Anderson was the quarterback in 2007 — which is a very odd sentence to type. This week Mayfield has a chance to win a key road game against a good (I think) Titans team that just so happens to have one of the worst pass defenses and the worst third-down defense in the league.
Even with Myles Garrett back and the most dynamic rushing attack in the league, this game will still be an uphill battle for the Browns because of Baker Mayfield's unreliable play. The Titans' offense is hitting on all cylinders with the emergence of A.J. Brown as one of the game's best deep threats, Derrick Henry doing Derrick Henry things, and Ryan Tannehill playing steady and consistent at quarterback.
Prediction: Titans 30, Browns 24
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.