Two Cleveland "franchises" face off as the NFL's 100th anniversary celebration continues on SNF
The Los Angeles Rams know all about NFL life before the Cleveland Browns. The franchise actually began in Cleveland, part of the ill-fated American Football League in 1936 before moving to the NFL the following year. They remained in Ohio until the end of World War II before jumping to Los Angeles for the first of what would become two franchise stints out in California.
The Rams also have what the Browns have been searching for the better part of two decades; a winning pedigree. The reigning NFC champions are right on track for another successful season, looking for a third straight victory to start 2019. They need to keep pace with Seattle and San Francisco in what's shaping up to be an NFC West division race filled with heavyweights.
The Browns, of course, are no pushover; this weekend presents a prime opportunity for them to live up to their preseason hype. Two of their three AFC North rivals have stumbled to an 0-2 start, leaving only the Baltimore Ravens ahead of them. And with the Ravens playing the Kansas City Chiefs this weekend? A victory at home against a marquee opponent could easily leave them tied for the division lead at 2-1.
Los Angeles Rams at Cleveland Browns
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 22 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Rams -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Jared Goff vs. Cleveland's depleted secondary
Even with running back Todd Gurley seeing a reduction in carries, Goff has not needed to carry much of the load for the Rams this season. Their rushing attack ranks seventh in the NFC and Gurley, backup Malcolm Brown and others should rack up plenty of yards against the Browns. They've given up 84 rushing yards to Derrick Henry and 129 total yards (68 rushing, 61 receiving) to Le'Veon Bell the past two weeks.
But a number of injuries to the Browns' secondary could mean a game plan from head coach Sean McVay built more around Goff. Both of Cleveland's starting cornerbacks, Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams, are questionable with hamstring injuries. Starting safety Damarious Randall (concussion) already isn't playing and his counterpart, Morgan Burnett, didn't practice on Friday with a quad problem.
That could open it up for Goff to throw deep, building upon his Week 2 performance against the Saints. In that game, deep threat Cooper Kupp pulled in a 66-yard catch while Brandin Cooks had a 57-yarder. Kupp, especially looks to be in terrific shape after a full recovery from his torn ACL and could be in position for a big night if Goff produces.
2. Which Baker Mayfield shows up?
Two games is a small sample size for any quarterback. But Baker Mayfield ranks just 14th out of 16 starting AFC signal-callers thus far with a 73.4 rating. He's been sacked eight times, thrown four interceptions, and looked decidedly average other than the spectacular 89-yard TD connection with Odell Beckham Jr. this past Monday night against the New York Jets.
That's not going to fly against a Rams defense that boasts potential MVP candidate Aaron Donald. Donald, currently questionable with a back injury, should play and could wreak havoc against a suspect Browns offensive line. Remember, the Browns also lead the league with 27 penalties and five of them have been offensive holding calls.
The Rams defense already has four takeaways, one off the league lead, and rank inside the top 10 in both rushing and passing yards allowed. Three forced fumbles and five sacks mean there's going to be constant pressure on Mayfield and the Cleveland offense. Which means...
3. Who can be the 1-2 punch with Beckham on the Browns offense?
Chubb has had a respectable start to the year, posting 137 yards and a touchdown through two games. But his longest run has been less than 20 yards and there's been no signature moment where he's taken over a game. His 3.9 yards per carry ranks just 14th in the AFC and sits far below the 5.2 number he posted as a rookie.
On the pass-catching side, tight end David Njoku, a reliable offensive option, was put on injured reserve this week. So who's going to catch passes when Beckham is double-covered? Jarvis Landry is the only other Brown besides Beckham to finish with more than 50 receiving yards in a game thus far.
As we've seen with Beckham's previous team, one all-star offensive player can only do so much. I'm sure Saquon Barkley would give up plenty of his yardage for the Giants to be 2-0 thus far instead of 0-2. So Mayfield needs to find another offensive option, and fast, while the offensive line becomes more disciplined and gets Chubb going. It's a tall order.
The Browns, to a certain extent, cleaned up their act Monday night against a depleted Jets team. By the end of the night, the Jets were on their third-string quarterback and had next-to-no offensive options to offer besides Le'Veon Bell. Cleveland would be in panic mode if they didn’t win that game by double digits.
The Rams, however, offer a very different challenge, the high bar these media-hyped Browns aspire to reach. Sunday night could be a tough reminder they're not as close as observers thought they might be to that level entering the season. An undisciplined, inconsistent attack is going to get you routed by a Rams team fighting hard to avoid the dreaded Super Bowl hangover.
Prediction: Rams 34, Browns13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.