Having won five out of six since the bye week, with the only loss coming in a shootout against the Ravens, the Browns are almost certainly heading to the postseason for the first time in 18 years. Will they be looking past a Jets team that just figured out how to win again, though?
Having regressed last year, Baker Mayfield began the 2020 season with a rough outing against the Ravens. Since then, he’s been excellent though. While he may not end up with as many yards and touchdowns as he had in his rookie year, Mayfield has dramatically improved his turnover rate with just eight interceptions after racking up 35 over his first two years.
Until three weeks ago, Mayfield didn’t have a 300-yard game yet this season but he’s done it twice in the past three weeks, during which time he’s averaging 325 yards per game.
Case Keenum is the Browns’ number two, although he’s only thrown 10 passes all season and actually has less passing yards than wide receiver Jarvis Landry does.
The Browns have had to shuffle the pack quite a bit over the past few games and were concerned they could be forced into additional changes on Sunday with rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills having been placed on Covid-19 reserve. However, he has continued to test negative and was reactivated on Saturday.
Cleveland had already been forced to start Nick Harris at right guard last week against the Giants. Harris, another rookie who was drafted in the fifth round, had not played any offensive snaps before being called upon.
Harris was filling in for Wyatt Teller, who has missed four starts this season. Veteran Chris Hubbard had been filling in for Teller until he also got injured and was placed on injured reserve. Teller had been grading out as the top guard in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, but his ankle injury will continue to keep him out on Sunday so they will probably have to continue to ride with Harris.
Fortunately for the Browns, they’ve had good continuity along the rest of the offensive line. Apart from Teller, the other four starters have only missed one start between them and that was back in week two when Hubbard filled in at right tackle for Jack Conklin.
The Browns have a couple of reliable veterans in Joel Bitonio and JC Tretter at left guard and center respectively with the big money signing in Conklin and trade for Teller having boosted them to become one of the top groups in the league. Bitonio was voted to the pro bowl this week.
If there’s a weak link in the starting five, it’s Wills who has given up four sacks and 11 penalties on the year. He’s shown promise though.
In the event Wills had been unable to make it back, the Browns likely would have opted to start Kendall Lamm, who scored a touchdown against the Titans a few weeks ago when he lined up as a jumbo package tight end and leaked out to catch a touchdown pass.
The Browns also recently brought up Michael Dunn from the practice squad for extra cover and have activated center Javon Patterson as a Covid-19 replacement.
Nick Chubb has established himself as one of the league’s top running backs running behind a solid line. Despite missing four games, Chubb needs just 69 more yards to register his second thousand-yard season in a row and already has 10 rushing touchdowns. He’s posted five 100-yard games this season.
Kareem Hunt has been a productive reserve and has almost 800 rushing yards himself, including a 100-yard game of his own, as well as 34 pass receptions. Hunt also has 10 touchdowns, including a team-high five as a receiver.
D’Ernest Johnson doesn’t get much playing time but has averaged five yards per carry in a reserve role, while Andy Janovich is on the roster as a fullback.
When star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. tore his ACL in week seven, it seemed like a big blow to the Browns’ playoff hopes. However, they seem to have gone from strength to strength without him.
However, they have a major issue heading into Sunday’s game as they basically had to place all of their wide receivers onto Covid-19 reserve.
Landry is now the team’s unquestioned number one option and he’s leading them with 67 catches for almost 800 yards, but he’s been ruled out along with Rashard Higgins, KhaDarel Hodges and Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Higgins was the other starter and leads all the receivers with four touchdown receptions. Hodge and Peoples-Jones have only combined for 22 catches but have shown some big play abilities.
With these four players sidelined, journeyman Marvin Hall, who was added a few weeks ago, but he hasn’t played yet, now becomes the Browns’ top target. They’ve elevated Derrick Willies and Ja’Marcus Bradley from the practice squad. Bradley has played in two games this year but has no catches, while Willies has three career catches.
The Browns have three productive tight ends as Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant and David Njoku have 69 catches for almost 600 yards and eight touchdowns. Njoku, the former first round pick, has fallen behind the rookie Bryant while Hooper, who signed a $44 million contract in the offseason, is now the top option. You can expect lots of multiple tight end sets with the Browns shorthanded at wide receiver.
Stephen Carlson is the backup but doesn’t play much and only has one catch on the year.
For the second week in a row, the Jets face an elite defensive lineman as Myles Garrett already has 11 sacks leading into this game. Garrett has been mostly playing on the right over the past three games so it will be interesting to see if that’s also the case on Sunday. If it is, this will be a good test for Mekhi Becton.
On the other edge, Olivier Vernon still generates consistent pressure and has added seven sacks of his own. Veteran Adrian Clayborn has also proven to be a useful reserve with 3.5 sacks.
Porter Gustin also gets reps off the bench but is yet to record his first sack of the year. Joe Jackson doesn’t get much playing time.
The Browns are also solid up the middle with ex-Jet Sheldon Richardson lining up next to Larry Ogunjobi. Richardson has 4.5 sacks this year and Ogunjobi has 2.5. Vincent Taylor and third round rookie Jordan Elliott are the backups.
The Browns have a potential issue at linebacker because BJ Goodson - who wears the defensive headset and plays an every-down role - was added to Covid-19 reserve on Saturday, presumably because he was the player who reportedly failed a test.
Goodson had been playing a full-time role with Jacob Phillips and Sione Takitaki also listed as starters but typically employed situationally. Phillips, a third round rookie, has started to see his playing time increase gradually over the course of the season, but he’s also been ruled out due to a Covid-19 exposure.
Goodson comfortably leads the team in tackles and is also tied for the team lead with two interceptions. Takitaki had a key pick-six against the Eagles, but Phillips has struggled in coverage.
On the bench, Mack Wilson started seven games earlier in the year, but he has struggled, especially against the run. Former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith has started three times and is usually involved in the rotation, but he’s missed some practice time this week and is listed as questionable.
Tae Davis and Elijah Lee round out the rotation but they haven’t played much this year. Montrel Meander, a former Jet, was activated from the practice squad as additional cover.
Former top five pick Denzel Ward is the Browns’ top cornerback. He is fourth in the NFL with 16 pass breakups and has two interceptions. The other starter, Terrance Mitchell, has also been productive.
Tavierre Thomas, Kevin Johnson and MJ Stewart have all contributed at slot cornerback with mixed results. Johnson was in that role against the Giants last week.
The Browns drafted safety Grant Delpit in the second round in April but unfortunately he tore his Achilles in training camp so Andrew Sendejo has been starting alongside Karl Joseph. The veteran Sendejo has struggled in coverage.
Ronnie Harrison also started a few games after Joseph suffered a hamstring injury and played well, but he’s on injured reserve now, so Joseph is back in the starting lineup.
Sheldrick Redwine gets regular reps as the third safety while Robert Jackson and undrafted rookie Jovante Moffatt are also on the roster but haven’t played much yet.
Cody Parkey, the Browns kicker, hasn’t attempted a 50-yarder all season but has still missed six kicks in total.
Their punter is Jamie Gillan, who is near the bottom of the league in net punt average and in the top ten in return yardage allowed.
With Jojo Natson on injured reserve, Peoples-Jones and Johnson are the main contributors in the return game with Johnson listed as the kick off returner and People-Jones as the punt returner.
In kick coverage, the Browns gave up a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Colts. Thomas is the team’s best punt gunner, with four of his seven special teams tackles all coming in one game. Takitaki is their leading tackler on special teams but Davis, Carlson and Stewart also contribute.
Finally, Taylor has a knack for blocking kicks, so needs to be accounted for on field goals and extra points.