Week 6 Previews: Can the Browns Win with Baker Mayfield?
Arizona Cardinals at Cleveland Browns, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
It's six weeks into Baker Mayfield's contract season. Do you have any idea how he's doing?
Before you answer, let's examine the evidence.
- Mayfield ranks 15th in both DVOA and DYAR, with an above-average DVOA of 6.2%. Just fine, but hardly the sort of triumphant arrival among the league's top quarterbacks that screams "Here! Take our $150 million!"
- Mayfield is playing through a bum non-throwing shoulder and throwing to a depleted wide receiver corps, two factors which suggest that he is a better quarterback than his stats currently indicate.
- Mayfield is supported by the league's best running game. The Browns not only rank first in overall rushing but first in second-down rushing and second in third-down rushing, meaning they aren't as reliant on their passing game on second-and-9 or third-and-3 as most teams. That has allowed them to build a large percentage of their passing game around screens and rollout concepts. Therefore, Mayfield might be a less effective quarterback than his stats currently indicate.
- The Browns scored 42 points last week, so Mayfield must be doing something right.
- Mayfield is so reliant on his short over-the-middle game that it took the Browns one minute and four seconds to move 21 yards when they needed a touchdown on their final drive. It's hard to argue that he's doing enough right to get the Browns past their toughest opponents.
- But then, maybe Mayfield is only reliant on short passes between the numbers because his shoulder is hurt and his receiving corps is weak.
We can go around and around on this. Based on Walkthrough's Twitter feed, Browns fans are doing just that.
It's inevitable that the Browns must give Mayfield some type of $40-million-per-year contract; the alternatives make for fun comment-thread thought experiments but terrible management decisions. The issue isn't whether the Browns should "Pay the Man" but whether or not they will regret it. So far, the 2021 season has offered neither reassurance that Mayfield is slow-cooking into Drew Brees nor enough indicators that he will max out around Jared Goff to give the Browns front office genuine pause.
That's one of the reasons this game is so important. A loss to the Cardinals would not ruin the Browns' 2021 season. There are lots of welterweights such as the Steelers, Broncos, and Patriots on the schedule for them to steamroll in the next few weeks. But Mayfield and the Browns simply must win games like this one to prove that the Browns are headed in the right direction before Mayfield starts eating up over 15% of the cap.
No, Walkthrough is not trucking in unscientific QB WINZ reasoning. All the evidence right now suggests that the Browns are a middle-of-the-pack team with a middle-of-the-pack quarterback. A win by the Browns and/or a truly great game by Mayfield on Sunday would provide the first real evidence we have this year to the contrary.
The Cardinals are three-point road dogs, a sign that the house and public still smell a pretender. They feel due for a course-correction game, but we just flirted with QB WINZ, so we aren't even going to touch the Gambler's Fallacy. Those three points don't amount to much, so Walkthrough is taking the Cardinals straight-up with a +150 moneyline instead. And we'll check back in on Mayfield and the Browns went they do more than beat weaker teams and achieve moral victories against tougher ones. Cardinals 28, Browns 24.
Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Walkthrough has solved the mystery of the Chargers' low DVOA rankings!
For those of you who just read Walkthrough for the Urban Meyer yuks and don't follow all the inside-baseball football analysis at Football Outsiders: the Chargers' DVOA rating was shockingly low after the team upset the Kansas City Chiefs to go 2-1. The Chargers are now slowly climbing up the charts, but they're still 11th overall, below the 2-3 49ers and Seahawks. Does DVOA hate the Chargers? Has it uncovered some super-secret flaw? Did we forget to carry a two?
Nope. The Chargers offense just wasn't very good early in the season but has rapidly improved each week.
Here are the Chargers' week-by-week offensive DVOA figures:
When the Chargers scored 20 points in the season opener against Washington, many of us interpreted it as a semi-impressive performance against a great defense. Now that Washington has allowed 29 points to the Giants and 30 to the Falcons, it's clear that their defense is actually below average. Therefore, the Chargers offense must also have been below average in week 1, as DVOA suggests.
The Chargers moved up and down the field against the Cowboys but lost because of red zone mistakes. Well, the Eagles move up and down the field but fail in the red zone all the time this year, and the Panthers did so last year. An offense with a red zone problem is an offense with a real problem, so DVOA was not impressed with the Chargers in Week 2.
The Chargers beat the Chiefs with the help of four turnovers. It was a fine performance against a lousy defense, and DVOA interpreted it as a little bit above average. The Chargers offense has been excellent over the last two weeks, and while that retroactively impacts our perceptions of how they played in September, it doesn't go back and improve their statistics or put points on the scoreboard against the Cowboys.
The Chargers also rank 29th in special teams DVOA, mostly because of four missed extra points and minimal production from their return game. A missed extra point nearly cost the Chargers a win in last week's shootout with the Browns, so a real deficiency in the kicking game cannot be overlooked.
Finally, and most critically this week, the Chargers run defense ranks 31st in DVOA. There are no secrets in the numbers here; they allowed 198 rushing yards to the Cowboys, 186 to the Chiefs, and 230 to the Browns.
The Chargers used a seven-defensive back package to hold Lamar Jackson and the Ravens to 90 rushing yards in the 2018 playoffs, but that might as well have happened in 1961. The Colts appeared to be focused on stopping the run on Monday night, and Jackson just shifted gears and torched them through the air.
The Chargers will climb past the 49ers and Seahawks on the DVOA rankings soon enough. More importantly, they have earned their place in the AFC playoff chase group behind the Bills. But even with their offense surging, their shortcomings will keep them behind the Ravens for a little while longer. Ravens 33, Chargers 31.
Miami Dolphins vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, 9:30 a.m.
Leftenant Tua Tagovailoa (not a captain, now in England) may return for this game. Urban Meyer may be fired if he loses this game. And Walkthrough is just looking for a little Sunday brunch action! The Jaguars' first-quarter offense ranks sixth in DVOA, and they have played most opponents strong early in the game. Meanwhile, the Dolphins have been outscored 44-3 in the second quarter. So we're taking the Jaguars to lead at halftime with a moneyline payout of +135. After that, both teams can stay in England for all we care. Dolphins 23, Jaguars 22.
Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Hope you didn't place any Comeback Player of the Year wagers on Sam Darnold, dear readers! Darnold has thrown five interceptions in his last two games and now has a higher interception rate (3.3%) than he had with the Jets in 2019 and 2020. And the neither the Cowboys nor Eagles defense is exactly the Legion of Boom. Darnold just hasn't been able to squat on leads against helpless opponents for the entire game over the last two weeks like he did for most of September.
Yes, Christian McCaffrey's absence has contributed to Darnold's decline. But if a running back injury has that great an impact on an entire offense, that's probably a sign that the offense isn't as sturdy as it looked against the Jets or Texans. McCaffrey is "50-50" to play this week. Dalvin Cook has been practicing but is probably out: it's a discouraging sign when the team's website is being coy about a player's status. But the Vikings have proven they can do their thing, such as it is, with Alexander Mattison. Running backs aren't supposed to matter all that much, etc.
The Panthers will lose their middleweight contender status with a loss. The Vikings can regain theirs with a win. We won't know the result of this low-scoring underachievement-fest until the end-of-game field goal attempt. Panthers 22, Vikings 21.
Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Backup guard Alex Bars played 17 snaps for the Bears as a de facto tight end, even going in motion as an H-back a few times. Bars was pressed into service because actual tight ends Jesse James and J.P. Holtz were hurt, but that still left Cole Kmet and Jimmy Graham. You remember Graham, right? The five-time Pro Bowler with a $16-million contract? He played just 25 of 64 offensive snaps against the Raiders, many of them as a slot receiver.
In other words, Matt Nagy's idea of a crackerjack personnel package for Justin Fields is to give him the fewest possible offensive weapons. In fairness, it worked against the Raiders and Lions, teams that were helpless against the Bears defense. It won't work this week.
Matt LaFleur fell back on the old "stats are for losers" boilerplate when asked about the Packers' red zone issues (they are 25th in DVOA). Yeah, Coach, you'll be cozying up to the stat community soon enough once your quarterback decides to sandbag you. Packers 27, Bears 13.
Cincinnati Bengals at Detroit Lions, Sunday, 1 p.m.
How this game will go:
- Joe Burrow to Ja'Marr Chase: 60-yard touchdown.
- 70-yard Lions field goal drive of 12 rushing plays and a screen to T.J. Hockensen.
- Burrow drilled while attempting a 60-yard touchdown pass to Chase; Lions interception.
- 73-yard Lions field goal drive of 12 rushing plays and a screen to D'Andre Smith.
- Zac Taylor sends Burrow to the parking lot to retrieve his playbook on fourth-and-2. Burrow is surrounded by 1970s bikers and stabbed in the throat with a tire iron. Burrow limps back onto the field and runs a quarterback draw for a first down that's negated by holding. The Bengals punt.
- Jared Goff fumbles due to a gentle breeze. The Bengals get the ball at the Lions' 20-yard line with 40 seconds left and two timeouts, but Taylor decides trying to score is too risky and takes multiple delay-of-game penalties to run out the half.
- Halftime: emergency Burrow tracheotomy with a Tom Mix penknife.
- Burrow to Chase: 60-yard touchdown.
- Goff manufactures two scoring drives to give the Lions a two-point lead by relying on wide receivers Babylonia St. Cuthbert, Threnady Jones, Josephus of Antioch, and obscure X-Men villain Cameron Hodge.
- Burrow hits Tee Higgins (Chase was triple-covered) to set up a game-winning 55-yard field goal with three seconds left. Evan McPherson's kick clangs off the front upright but is blown good by the same breeze that forced Goff to fumble.
- Dan Campbell slams a fifth of bourbon on the podium at his postgame press conference and growls Tom Waits lyrics at the media for 20 solid minutes, earning the respect of both his players and the 1970s bikers in the parking lot. Bengals 24, Lions 23.
Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, 1 p.m.
No force on earth, not even the fact that Walkthrough covered the Texans in Wednesday's Tank Watch and is trying to trim our word counts, is powerful enough to stop the Carson Wentz Victimization Index!
- People are saying nice things about me after Monday night's performance! -10%
- Even Philly media people! -20%
- That's right folks: your buddy Carson is playing great football but being BETRAYED by his defense and special teams: 30%
- OK, "betrayed" is too strong a term, since the defense stopped Lamar Jackson for the whole first half and recovered a fumble at the goal line: 5%
- And "great football" might be too strong a term, because I fumbled, had a two-point conversion intercepted, got sacked out of field goal range, and got my two touchdown passes on a screen-and-run and an up-for-grabs wobbler while I was getting hit: 10%
- But if you blame me for the Colts being 1-4, just because I'm barely hovering above replacement level after two of my best games in three years, then you're just being a hater: 10%
Total Victimization: 25%. Low enough to beat the Texans. And perhaps only the Texans. Colts 27, Texans 14.
Los Angeles Rams at New York Giants, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Walkthrough covered the Rams in some detail in Thursday's Leaderboard of the Week. The Giants have returned to their steady state of waiting for Saquon Barkley to return from his latest injury and pretending that everything will start getting better as soon as that happens. Rams 31, Giants 17.
Kansas City Chiefs at Washington Football Team, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
A working theory on what's wrong with Washington's defense this season: it was never all that great last year.
Washington built its No. 2 ranking in pass defense DVOA last year atop lots of Andy Dalton/Ben DiNucci, Carson Wentz/Jalen Hurts/Nate Sudfeld, Daniel Jones, Nick Mullens, and Joe Burrow (with no blocking)/Ryan Finley. Stronger opponents such as the Rams and Ravens spent the fourth quarters of their wins munching the clock, which suppresses passing stats. Matthew Stafford threw three touchdowns in a win over Washington with Kenny Golladay injured and half the roster in quit mode. So the 2020 WFT weren't exactly the 1985 Bears, but their defense somehow achieved mythic proportions in the offseason, in part because of Chase Young's excellence, but also because so many of us were trying to make sense of what they were doing on offense.
A weaker-than-advertised defense and a banged-up, fits-and-starts Washington offense are the perfect prescriptions for what ails the Chiefs. Chiefs 27, Washington 21.
Las Vegas Raiders at Denver Broncos, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
The closest comparison we can think of for what the Raiders are going through this week is the Dolphins Bullygate scandal back in 2015. Joe Philbin and others were fired amid the sort of national turmoil that's impossible to just "tune out." Dan Campbell came in and led the Dolphins to two quick wins, including a 38-10 pummeling of the Tennessee Titans.
There were many key differences between those Dolphins and these Raiders, of course: the Dolphins used the bye week to lower the simmer on the Bullygate story, and Jon Gruden was probably much more of a hands-on offensive tactician than Philbin. On the other hand, Bullygate involved day-to-day events in the Dolphins locker room as opposed to old emails and resulted in some on-field changes. Therefore it was probably much more of a "distraction" for the players than the Gruden saga.
The Raiders were probably already beginning a swan dive. Gruden's resignation will only hasten it. If we're wrong, Rich Bisaccia will be hailed as a genius for playing Metallica in the weight room and end up coaching the Lions in three years. Broncos 26, Raiders 16.
Dallas Cowboys at New England Patriots, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Guard Shaq Mason returned to practice this week, so the injury-ravaged Patriots offensive line will be slightly sturdier than it was against Houston. The Cowboys pass rush isn't much of a threat, but the Patriots must be wary of creating game plans that smother Poised Mac Jones with his own pillows. The Patriots have been outscored 21-10 in the first quarter, while the Cowboys outscore opponents 45-27. The Cowboys are not the Texans and will not quit once they're ahead.
And since you asked: the first-quarter spread is Cowboys -1 (+105), and Walkthrough played it. Cowboys 28, Patriots 20.
Seattle Seahawks at Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
The greatest game of Geno Smith's career was probably a 30-28 Jets victory over the Atlanta Falcons in October of 2013. Smith threw three touchdowns and committed no turnovers in that game, leading the Jets on a last-second field goal drive. Smith had one other three-touchdown passing day in a victory over the Dolphins in December of 2014 and a three-total-touchdown (two passing, one rushing) effort in a 24-13 victory over the Browns in December of 2013.
After a handful of forgotten wins from the late Rex Ryan era, the pickings for impressive Geno performances become mighty slim. His boxscore stats from the ill-fated Eli Manning benching (21-of-34, 212 yards, one touchdown) look decent enough, but Smith lost a pair of fumbles, and the Giants offense spent most of that 24-17 loss to the Raiders going three-and-out.
It's worth noting that Geno had positive rushing DVOA in 2013 but negative rushing DYAR and DVOA in 2014, both due to fumbles and low yards per carry. He can move, but it's hard to imagine that he has become more of an asset as a rusher after rusting on the bench for most of the last half decade.
Still, the urge to wager on a competent (???) backup in his first start of the season remains overpowering, especially with +5.5 wiggle room. Also, a dueling points-off-turnovers showdown is possibly in play. So it's Same Game Parlay time! Seahawks +5.5 AND Over 42.5 at +265. Regrets are for the timid. Seahawks 26, Steelers 20.
Buffalo Bills at Tennessee Titans, Monday, 8:15 p.m.
Derrick Henry is on pace for 483 carries this season. That would smash the all-time record set by Larry Johnson in 2006 by 67 carries. The 17-game schedule is a factor, but Henry would be on pace for 454 carries in a 16-game season, blowing past Johnson's record of 416 carries.
You may be expecting a lecture about the Curse of 370 and running back sustainability right now. But screw it. Let a million flowers bloom! Henry may well be an Eric Dickerson-level historic talent for whom the laws of physics do not apply. But the Titans should at least consider cutting down on Henry's fourth-quarter carries in lopsided victories. Henry rushed 10 times with the Titans leading by two scores in the fourth quarter against the Jaguars in Week 5. It's one thing to ask him to pound out yards when the game remains somewhat close, as he did against the Colts. It's another to use him as a stump-grinder in situations where a replacement-level back could at least soak up some of the carries.
None of this matters on Monday night. The Bills are going to roll all over the Titans, making Henry a non-factor early. Frankly, he could use the rest. Bills 34, Titans 21.