(Five points of interest in Sunday’s game)
TAKE IT EASY
The idea would be ridiculous in New England, Pittsburgh or Green Bay. But after a 2-2-1 start, Cleveland coach Hue Jackson spent the week trying to keep his team grounded.
“We have not done anything. We have not qualified for anything,” he said. “We have won two football games. Even when we do something, we will have done nothing. We have a lot of work to do here. That is what Cleveland is about — people that work hard, earn what they get and get what they earn and keep finding ways to do it every day. That is just who we are going to be.”
Jackson felt the speech was needed after the first positive media attention during his three-year tenure and players talking about making the playoffs. He even warned about people jumping on the team’s bandwagon after a visit from rapper Snoop Dogg.
The team leaders got the message. Linebacker Christian Kirksey said the players needed to block out everything, and receiver Jarvis Landry was adamant that “we have not arrived.”
“We’ve won a couple games now, now we’ve got to win a couple in a row,” said left guard Joel Bitonio, who hasn’t had a winning streak since his rookie year in 2014. “The good teams always win a few in a row. And if we can pull that off, then we can start taking the next step and talking about expectations.”
The Browns are starting to build something at home. They’re 2-0-1 with two wins in a row, and a victory against the Chargers would provide their best home start since going 4-0 in 1963.
The Browns scored 42 points in Baker Mayfield’s first start, an overtime loss at Oakland. They scored 12 points in his second start, an overtime win over the Ravens. While he’s looking for the same result as against Baltimore, he’s chasing the production they had in Oakland.
“I think that we are more than capable of scoring 30-plus points per game, but when you play a defense like (the Ravens), any mistakes that we make, you are going to see the outcome of it,” Mayfield said. “I think that if we fix some of the things that we did against the Ravens, we would have scored a lot more points. We just have to do our job. The sky is the limit for this team.”
The offense will be short-handed at receiver, with Rashard Higgins (knee sprain) and Derrick Willies (broken collarbone) out against the Chargers, so Mayfield may have to rely on tight ends David Njoku, Seth DeValve and Darren Fells and running back Duke Johnson. In 2½ games Mayfield has made it clear he won’t shy away from a challenge or shrink in a difficult moment. He overcame second-and-21 from the 5-yard line last week to lead the winning drive in overtime.
“Same cool, calm and collected guy,” Johnson said of Mayfield in the dire situation. “Every play we believe we can convert. Regardless of down and distance, we believe we can convert.”
Chargers coach Anthony Lynn has taken notice of Mayfield.
“He has been impressive. No doubt about it,” he said. “I am happy for him because people told him what he could not do. He just kept proving people wrong. I am not surprised at all. It looks like the team is playing well and playing for him.”
ONE OF A KIND
Los Angeles’ Philip Rivers is the latest in a string of big-time quarterbacks the Browns have faced to open the season, following Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Derek Carr and Joe Flacco. There’s something different about Rivers. Actually, a lot of things different.
“He is unique,” middle linebacker Joe Schobert said. “His throwing motions is unique. The way he kind of commands the offense, gets them set up and kind of sees what the defense is in and checks into situations that he will have an advantage in is unique. He is going to be a future Hall of Fame quarterback, so it is another guy we got to bring our A-game against.”
Rivers is in his 15th season and playing as well as ever. He’s third in the NFL with a 116.4 rating and second with 13 touchdowns, against two interceptions. He’s had two games with ratings above 140, including last week in a win over Oakland. He’s been sacked only six times.
Jackson implored the fans to make more noise than ever to disrupt Rivers’ audibles at the line. Schobert said in the matchup last year in Los Angeles Rivers would stand there and call out the Browns’ coverages. The arm and smarts have made him an all-time great. He ranks eighth with 4,293 completions, eighth with 51,843 yards, ninth with a 64.4 completion percentage, sixth with 355 passing touchdowns and eighth with a 95.4 rating.
The Chargers aren’t just Rivers. They have a multidimensional offensive attack, and the second dimension is the running back tandem of Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler. They have combined for 1,005 yards from scrimmage, tops for a duo in the NFL. Their nine touchdowns are tied for first.
“Gordon is a physical runner,” Jackson said. “He is a downhill, get after it, get behind you pads, but he has good lateral quickness. The other guy is fast. This guy can catch, and he can run. He does a lot of different things with the ball.”
Gordon has rushed 73 times for 334 yards, a 4.6 average and three touchdowns. He’s added 28 catches for 261 yards with three touchdowns, giving him 595 scrimmage yards, which ranks fourth in the NFL. He has a touchdown in four straight games. Ekeler is 30th with 410 yards.
The Chargers are tied for 11th in rushing offense and rank 13th in passing offense. The Browns counter with the 22nd-ranked rushing defense and 27th-ranked passing defense.
“It is going to be about Philip, but will this be the best run game we have seen all year? Probably so,” Jackson said.
The two leading candidates for Defensive Rookie of the Year will take center stage at FirstEnergy Stadium. Browns cornerback Denzel Ward, the No. 4 pick, and Chargers safety Derwin James, No. 17, are off to fantastic starts.
Ward is tied for the NFL lead with three interceptions and four takeaways, and blocked a field goal last week. He’s won two rookie of the week awards and has more than held his own against a murderer’s row of top receivers. Los Angeles’ Keenan Allen is next on the list. Allen had 10 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown against the Browns last year, was second in the NFL with seven 100-yard games and has 32 catches for 372 yards and a touchdown this year.
“He obviously has good ball skills. If he gets an opportunity, he has made the play on it,” Rivers said of Ward. “It seems to be clear on things, too, that he is pretty savvy back there for a young player. He certainly has shown himself worthy of that high pick.”
James leads the Chargers with three sacks and six passes defensed, has an interception and is tied for the team lead with 31 tackles. The Chargers were stunned, and thrilled, he fell to them.
“They like to blitz him. He is a guy that you have to keep your eye on where he is at on the field because he can do it all,” Mayfield said. “Obviously for a rookie to be doing that, it is very impressive. We have to continue to look out for him.”
Overtime games for the Browns, tied for the most in NFL history through five games with the 2002 Bills, 1995 Colts and 1987 Packers
Takeaways by the defense, two more than all of last season and the most for the Browns through five weeks since 17 in 1989.
Passing yards by Baker Mayfield in his two starts, the most by a Browns quarterback in his first two starts
Another week, another game down to the wire, finally a winning streak. Browns 24, Chargers 23.