The Cleveland Browns are 7-8 on the season and can’t seem to win games against good teams. Much like was true against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Las Vegas Raiders and the first game against the Baltimore Ravens, the Browns were close but no cigar against the Green Bay Packers.
A nuanced conversation is hard to have in print as the easy finger-pointing goes to Baker Mayfield, Kevin Stefanski and the kicker (for this game it was Chris Naggar). All three played roles in the outcome of the game.
A Christmas Miracle that was denied for Cleveland. The Browns remained without a number of players on the reserve/COVID-19 list as well as due to injury. The list of starters or key contributors is startling to look at:
John Johnson III
Greg Newsome II
No excuses but it is a staggering list to see.
So what did we learn from the loss? At a base level, it wasn’t good enough but it was darn close. The nuanced discussion is a little more detailed.
Baker Mayfield Wasn’t Good Enough but Almost Was
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
The conversation has to start with the quarterback after four interceptions. Each interception told a story:
The first one should have been a penalty but was a bad decision by Mayfield no matter what.
The second interception was terrible footwork and mechanics
The third interception looked like a misunderstanding between Mayfield and Jarvis Landry. This long into their partnership, unacceptable that they don’t read things the same.
The fourth interception was completely due to a hold by the defender. Mayfield made the right read and threw a good ball. The defender held Donovan Peoples-Jones so he couldn’t get out of his break and then intercepted the ball. Horrific no call by the referees.
We also must note the near pick where the defender dropped the ball. Mayfield didn’t read the defense well and allowed the corner to get under the route. Lucky it wasn’t intercepted.
Mayfield was off on a lot of other passes throughout the game but was in a position to lead the team to a victory if that penalty was called or didn’t happen. Nothing is certain after that but very possible given the position on the field and three timeouts available.
While the former #1 overall pick wasn’t good on quite a few throws, he was really good on others. The inconsistency is maddening for everyone watching. In the end, it was not good enough AND the refs blew two calls on two of his four interceptions while Green Bay dropped what would have been a fifth.
Kevin Stefanski Had Some Great Play Calls, Continues to Struggle with Proper Balance
Cleveland Browns’ Nick Chubb runs during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)
In some ways, the Browns offense had one of their best games overall despite Mayfield’s interceptions. Stefanski’s play-calling kept the Packers defense from getting a grip on the game with creativity and a focus on plays that the team excelled at.
Stefanski also continues to struggle with finding a good balance with the run and pass games. The early success throwing the ball seemed to open up the run game which excelled. The team’s two running backs had 184 yards rushing. WR Anthony Schwartz added 24 yards on designed runs as well.
The two backs also only combined for 21 total carries with Nick Chubb getting 17 of them and D’Ernest Johnson only getting four despite 58 yards on those carries.
On the last drive, Stefanski also called five straight pass plays despite having those three timeouts.
Adding five to ten more runs between the two backs over the course of the game may have continued the team’s success while limiting Mayfield’s turnovers. Gashing the Packers for over eight yards a carry for the game was a sign that they should have pounded the rock more.
Like Mayfield, Stefanski had some really good moments as a play-caller but baffling decisions at other times.
The Missed Extra Point Early May Have Doomed the Game
(AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
“Chasing points” always seems to set a team up for despair. Cleveland had to chase points early after Naggar’s missed extra point. The team then went for two points after their next score and failed there as well.
The end difference was two points but the missed extra point could have changed decisions by both teams for the rest of the game. No way to know how Green Bay makes decisions late if the game is tied or how Stefanski calls that last drive if the game was tied instead of down two points.
In the end, finding a quality kicker in the NFL is difficult. Some kickers look good for a few games or even a season but very few (Justin Tucker for example) are good year after year for a career.
Naggar’s first attempt in an NFL game left the Browns chasing points and, along with the missed two-point conversion forced because of his miss, was the difference in the score.
Nick Harris Ready to Take Over
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While he may have not been perfect on film when every play is looked over, Harris looked very good from the first impression. He pulled out in front of runs perfectly and showed great quickness, technique and leverage.
With J.C. Tretter possibly out another week, Harris has a chance to prove to Cleveland that they can turn the center position over to him next year and save themselves a lot of cap space by moving on from Tretter.
A great showing on national television for the former fifth-round pick.
Myles Garrett’s Groin Injury Significantly Limited the Star Edge Rusher
(AP Photo/David Richard)
Garrett’s biggest impact in the game may have been contact with Aaron Rodgers injured toe early in the contest. Garrett was credited with one assisted tackle during the game and was obviously limited by his groin injury.
With Clowney on the COVID list and Takk McKinley out for the year with an Achilles injury, the defensive end position is highly limited. Without an impactful Garrett, the Browns pass rush was limited to a surprisingly good showing from Ifeadi Odenigbo.
If Cleveland is officially out of the playoff race before the end of the season, expect Garrett to get shutdown early.
Not Perfect but the Defense Plays Well
Without a ton of players, as listed above, and Garrett limited, the Cleveland defense still played well. All three touchdowns were given up on short fields after a Mayfield interception.
Rodgers, with his gimpy toe, only threw for 202 yards while the rushing attack had just a little over 100 yards on 24 carries.
The team had little answer for Davante Adams in the first half but limited most of the rest of the Packers receiving group.
It wasn’t enough to get the job done but holding a Rodgers led offense to only 24 points despite four turnovers from their offense has to be celebrated for Cleveland’s defense.
Don’t Count the Browns Out
(AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)
The road to the playoffs is obviously a difficult one with only two games left but the rest of the AFC North also has difficult games. The Browns will need a few of them to go their way and to beat Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in their last two contests but anything is possible this year.
This week alone, Baltimore doesn’t have their top two quarterbacks while the Steelers face off against the Chiefs who will at least have Tyreek Hill back off their reserve/COVID-19 list. Those two losses wouldn’t be enough for the Browns but could set up important games in the last two weeks.
Given their inconsistencies, very little should be expected from the team but they can’t be counted out just yet. Down a ton of players, on the road with no practices for two weeks for key guys and dealing with four interceptions from Mayfield, the team still fought to the end. Without a missed holding call on the final interception, the Browns could have walked out with a victory.
They didn’t and now are 7-8 but aren’t out of the chase.