LOS ANGELES — The Cleveland Browns are facing one of their toughest tests yet this weekend as they travel out to Los Angeles to take on the Chargers. Cleveland is riding a three-game winning streak heading into the showdown at SoFi Stadium, while Los Angeles has won its last two games, both wins over AFC West foes.
The Browns are currently sitting tied for first in the AFC North at 3-1 on the season, sharing that record with both the Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals. With the entire AFC North having the AFC West on the schedule this season, this becomes one of the more important games for the Browns, not only in terms of the race for the AFC North crown, but also potentially for seeding in the playoffs as well.
Here are three keys for the Browns to beat the Chargers on Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles.
A BETTER BAKER
It’s no secret that Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has not been his best throughout the course of the last two wins against Chicago and Minnesota. After starting off the season leading the NFL in completion percentage at 81.6 percent through the first two games, Mayfield has completed just 53.1 percent of his passes in the last two games. The game against Minnesota was Mayfield’s worst performance in near 12 months.
That slump for Mayfield has coincided with a shoulder injury that was suffered in the win over Chicago a few weeks back. Since then, Mayfield has been wearing a shoulder harness and consistently missing open receivers with high passes. While there hasn’t been an excuse made regarding the injury or the harness, Mayfield was asked about it on Wednesday.
“It shouldn’t,” Mayfield said when asked whether the harness is impacting his throwing.
Saying it shouldn’t impact his throwing is certainly different than saying that it doesn’t. Either way, the Browns aren’t going to be able to survive with a less than stellar Mayfield for much longer. Being able to beat Minnesota with a terrific defensive performance was certainly impressive, but the Browns are going to need better quarterback play to get to where they wish to go, and may even need it this weekend.
CONTINUE THE RUNNING SUCCESS
Aside from the excellent defensive performance against Minnesota, the Browns were able to win due to a great effort from running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Chubb reached 100 yards for the first time on the season and Hunt reached the end zone for the second straight week. Thus far this year, Hunt has re-proven himself as one of the NFL’s elite running backs, while Chubb has continued to show that he is.
This week, the Browns should have even more of an edge on the ground than normal. The sample size may be small, but the Chargers currently 29th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game. The top-ranked rushing attack of the Browns should have the ability to ice the game away relatively easily if an early lead can be built, but against this Los Angeles offense, that may be easier said than done.
SLOW DOWN JUSTIN HERBERT'S BREAKOUT
The Chargers are a team with a relatively talented roster that includes stars on both sides of the football. Defensively, the team has edge rusher Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James that are both considered among the league’s best at their positions, while on offense, receiver Keenan Allen and running back Austin Ekeler are both two of the better skill position guys in the NFL.
But make no mistake, while those guys certainly help, the biggest reason the Chargers are now among one of the NFL’s best teams is the emergence of second-year quarterback Justin Herbert as one of the NFL’s better signal callers. So far this season, Herbert has thrown nine touchdowns and three interceptions. His last two games have seen him throw seven touchdowns and no interceptions.
The performance that the Browns have put forth on defense over the last two weeks certainly is encouraging when it comes to slowing down Herbert, but this is certainly a tougher opponent than Chicago’s offense, and may surpass Minnesota’s, too. The Browns secondary captured its first interception last week when Greedy Williams picked off Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. Replicating at least a turnover, if not two, will go a long way towards the Browns winning this game.