THE TIME IS NOW
The playoff chase will be the primary focus of the final eight games. The Browns (5-3) haven’t been to the postseason since 2002, the longest drought in the NFL, and making it back would go a long way toward improving the organization’s culture that has too often been dysfunctional and defeatist.
The secondary focus may be just as important for the long-term future of the franchise: quarterback Baker Mayfield.
The rest of the season isn’t necessarily a referendum on Mayfield, but there’s no denying its importance. The Browns must make contractual decisions regarding Mayfield in the offseason, and they’d get much easier if he played at a near-elite level. Leading the team to a playoff spot would be a significant first step, especially paired with a win over the Steelers and/or Ravens on the way.
Judging Mayfield after each game is counterproductive, especially given the inconsistency he continued to show during the first eight games. He was great against the Bengals twice, awful against the Ravens and Steelers and serviceable but not stellar in the other four games.
He’s completed 61.4 percent for 1,514 yards, 15 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 90.9 passer rating. He ranks in the bottom quarter of the NFL in everything but touchdowns.
General manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski, who are in their first years on the job, last week separately avoided discussing whether Mayfield’s a franchise quarterback and how important the rest of the season is for his future. They appreciate Mayfield’s new in Stefanski’s system, is on his fourth head coach in three seasons and needs more time to develop.
The final eight games, and possibly the playoffs, probably won’t answer the franchise quarterback question completely, which would make the organization’s contract decisions more difficult. But as long as Mayfield stays healthy, they should present an invaluable evaluation, especially given the high stakes of a playoff race.
FINISH THE JOB
Defensive end Myles Garrett declared his intentions to be an all-time great even before he was drafted with the No. 1 pick in 2017. In his mind, with his talent, his resume should include Defensive Player of the Year awards and a Hall of Fame jacket.
After three years with flashes of brilliance, Garrett put everything together in the first eight games for sustained dominance that has him squarely in the running for that coveted Defensive Player of the Year award. He had a sack in a franchise-record six straight games, entered the bye sharing the league lead with Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald with nine sacks and tied at the top with Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey with four forced fumbles — all on strip-sacks.
The Browns breathed a huge sigh of relief when Garrett’s knee injury suffered last week in the loss to the Raiders turned out to be minor. He’s expected to play after the bye Sunday against the Texans and should be at “full force” for the second half, according to Berry.
The coaches have given Garrett more freedom to move around the line to find the most favorable matchup, and he’s excelled at both end spots and in the interior. His combination of size, speed, power and agility is rare, if not unmatched, and has shown up consistently. If he’s going to keep Donald from winning a third DPOY, Garrett will have to keep up the blistering base and approach 20 sacks.
He’s been mostly a one-man wrecking crew and could use veteran teammates Olivier Vernon and Adrian Clayborn to pick up their games. Other threats along the front four would make it more difficult for offenses to focus all their attention on Garrett.
FILLING THE VOID
The Browns quickly picked up the pieces in Cincinnati when superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr. went down on the second offensive snap with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Mayfield threw five touchdown passes and completed a franchise-record 21 straight passes, with receivers Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones and tight ends Harrison Bryant and David Njoku picking up the slack.
The offense wasn’t able to maintain the effort the next week against the Raiders. The wind was certainly a factor, so it’s silly to draw too many conclusions, but the five targets that excelled vs. the Bengals totaled nine catches vs. the Raiders, four by Landry. The simple truth is that Beckham’s skill set is impossible to replace, especially his ability to go the distance on any play. Berry didn’t make a trade to replace the speed threat, so he’s relying on everyone to take their games up a notch.
“It will take a bit of a committee approach,” he said. “I like the guys we have in the receiver room. I thought we saw their potential with their ability to step up against Cincinnati two weeks ago.”
EASY DOES IT
The first eight games demonstrated exactly where the Browns rank in the pecking order of the AFC. Clearly not on the upper tier, obviously above the lower level and competitive with the middle class.
They were blown out by the Ravens (6-2) and Steelers (8-0). They beat the Bengals (2-5-1) twice, the Washington Football Team (2-6) and the Cowboys (2-7). And they split with the Colts (5-3) and Raiders (5-3).
This is particularly relevant given the remaining schedule.
The Browns play four teams with the worst records in the NFL: the Texans (2-6), Jaguars (1-7), Jets (0-8) and Giants (2-7). Sweeping them would put the Browns at nine wins and likely one away from guaranteeing a playoff spot.
The other opponents are the Eagles (3-4-1), Titans (6-2), Ravens and Steelers.
The opportunity is right there for the Browns to end the playoff drought.
Running back Nick Chubb was the team’s offensive MVP — just like he was last year — before he sprained a medial collateral ligament against the Cowboys in Week 4. His absence only strengthened his status.
Without Chubb, the Browns dropped from No. 1 in the league in rushing (204.5 yards a game) to No. 5 (150.0). The loss of right guard Wyatt Teller (calf) the following week against the Colts also had an impact, but Chubb is the engine of the run game and the offense. He has 335 yards, a 5.9 average and four touchdowns, and his combination of power and breakaway speed is a nightmare for defenses.
Chubb might not be ready for the Texans game next week but should return soon. When he’s back on the field healthy, he’ll make a difference in the playoff push.