CLEVELAND — One team was playing to stay in the playoff chase while the other was playing to get their elusive first win of the season. It was hard to tell them apart.
That seems to be the margin between contenders and the bottom of the league as the Cleveland Browns needed a Herculean effort from Nick Chubb and critical mistakes from the Detroit Lions to hold on for the 13-10 win Sunday at First Energy Stadium.
Let’s be honest, it wasn’t pretty. Wait. That’s being too kind. It was horrible, ugly, boring and frustrating, but it was also a win and it counts just as much as the last one, a 41-16 blowout of the Bengals. Exhale, learn from it and move on. It wouldn’t hurt if the Browns could get injured running back Kareem Hunt back into the fold either. They’ll need all hands on deck next Sunday at Baltimore.
As for the Lions game, Baker Mayfield was not sharp for the second straight game. He threw just one touchdown pass against two interceptions and now that all important metric of TD/INT ratio that tends to drive quarterback paychecks looks woefully average. Mayfield, through 10 starts this season, has thrown for just 10 touchdowns against six interceptions. It appears that Baker is continuing the trend of following a good season with a bad. In his rookie season, Mayfield’s TD/INT ratio was an impressive 27/14. Solid for a rookie, especially his then record-setting 27 touchdowns by an NFL rookie. He followed that up with a sophomore slump TD/INT ratio of just 22/21.
Some of that was explained away by the Freddie factor and another new system. But when he bounced back with an impressive TD/INT ratio of 26/8 in 2020 in his first season with Kevin Stefanski it appeared Mayfield was headed in the right direction. That’s what makes his TD/INT ratio of 10/6 through 10 games this season so perplexing. Sure, some of that can be explained by his mounting injuries, but his decisions and accuracy look far more like 2019 Baker than the 2020 version.
He was not spectacular against the Lions by any standard. He did make some Pro Bowl caliber throws, but he also made throws that made no sense. The downfield element of this passing attack was virtually non-existent. That’s odd because in the past, Mayfield’s downfield throws were on point and electric. Anthony Schwartz was drafted to be the burner who can take the top off of opposing defenses, but the long game has just not materialized with any consistency at all. The passing game consists of dump offs and check downs and opposing defenses are on to it, and they’re keeping it in check. Scoring just 10 and 13 points in back to back games has many wondering how this is the same offense that put up 41 against the Bengals and 47 against the Chargers.
This offense is clearly driven by the running game, which now ranks first in the NFL in rushing yards, but the pass distribution chart looks out of whack through 11 games. Just twice in 2021 have the Browns wide receivers caught more passes in a game than the running backs and tight ends combined. Comparing the Browns distribution chart to the Chiefs drives home that point. Kansas City’s wide receivers have caught 156 passes this season compared to just 85 receptions for Browns receivers. I understand the Chiefs have a potent passing game and they are much more pass happy than the Browns, but 71 more passes to wide receivers is a huge gap. The Chiefs’ Pro Bowl tight end, Travis Kelce, has caught 62 passes alone. On a percentage basis, Kansas City’s receptions look like this: 56 percent to wide receivers, 26 percent to tight ends and 18 percent to running backs. The Browns look like this: 41 percent to wide receivers, 32 percent to tight ends and 27 percent to running backs. The Browns’ wide receivers must get more involved for this offense to break out of the doldrums.
Hunt could be just what the offense needs if his calf injury is better this week. Opposing defenses would have to pay far more attention to Hunt out of the backfield then they spend on Chubb. That should open passing lanes and opportunities for wide receivers. At 6-5 there is still hope to win the division. A wildcard will be extremely unlikely as they have losses to four of the teams also in the mix for those spots.
Beating the Ravens in Baltimore will not be easy, especially if Lamar Jackson is back from illness, which is fully expected. A win in Baltimore is possible, but unlikely. If the good Browns show up, they have a chance. If we see the same team we’ve seen the last two weeks, Cleveland will find itself 6-6 heading into the bye with any room for error the final five weeks of the season completely gone.