Mayfield young, brash but also good
The immaturity of red-hot Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield was on full display last week as he rattled on about Hue Jackson getting another job with a division rival in Cincinnati, then got huffy with the media and on social media when called out for his self-absorbed view of the NFL world.
Yet love him or loathe him, at least the brash Mayfield isn’t afraid to be himself, speak his mind ... or sling the football. And it’s notable that since Jackson was fired as Browns coach and Todd Haley was dismissed as offensive coordinator, Mayfield’s game has been boosted to another level under new coordinator Freddie Kitchens.
Cleveland heads into Sunday’s game at Houston with a two-game winning streak, during which Mayfield completed 78.2 percent of his passes, with seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. Don’t think the high completion rate is built on short dump-offs. A difference in the Browns’ post-Hue/Haley offense is reflected in the shots downfield, which showcase Mayfield’s strong, accurate arm.
A quick glance at other items of interest as Week 13 rolls on …
Pressure’s on: Matthew Stafford. Coming off a miserable Turkey Day performance magnified by the national TV exposure, questions ramp up about why the Lions invested $135 million in the quarterback. Now the Rams head to Ford Field, with a familiar face in the middle of the defense in Ndamukong Suh. Interestingly, Suh, who spent his first five NFL seasons in Detroit, has issued some thinly veiled messages revealing apparent differences with Stafford. But that’s not the issue with the quarterback Detroit drafted No. 1 overall in 2009. The issue is that Stafford is anything but elite, which coincides with a mediocre franchise that has had myriad changes around him. And with a fiveyear contract, there’s no choice now about Detroit’s commitment over the long haul.
Key matchup: Russell Wilson vs. Richard Sherman. After being unceremoniously dumped by the Seahawks last offseason while in the middle of rehab for a torn Achilles, Sherman makes his return to Seattle. Although the 49ers (2-9) are nowhere near the playoff map, Sherman can at least match wits against the Seahawks quarterback, as they did for years on the practice field. And perhaps he can affect the playoff hopes harbored by Seattle (6-5). Sherman will always be remembered as a key cog in the “Legion of Boom” secondary that provided backbone to the spectacular defense that supported Wilson while advancing to two Super Bowls. He got a raw deal when released after refusing to take a pay cut, another reflection of NFL business. Yet his contention this past week that he didn’t have a “relationship” with Wilson, and previous comments about the perceived preferential treatment for the quarterback, adds an appropriate layer of context to Sunday’s matchup.
Next man up: Austin Ekeler. With multi-skilled Melvin Gordon sidelined because of a sprained knee, Ekeler’s role is suddenly expanded as the lead running back for the Chargers. Coach Anthony Lynn says Ekeler, a solid 5-10, 200, is “pound for pound” the strongest player on his team. Now the hope, heading into Sunday night’s game at Pittsburgh, is that the second-year veteran will manage to carry his heaviest load yet for a unit on a playoff mission. Ekeler has developed into a significant player as a change-up back and complement to Gordon, increasingly producing more big plays. Yet filling his shoes are big. Gordon is the NFL’s sixth-leading rusher (802 yards, 5.2 per carry) and ranks seventh with 1,255 yards from scrimmage.
Rookie watch: Gus Edwards. Undrafted from Rutgers, the bruising, 240pound slasher has been the perfect complement to mobile quarterback Lamar Jackson in the revived Ravens’ offense. Like Jackson, Edwards heads to Atlanta poised to make his third NFL start in three weeks. And he’s started with a pop, averaging 5.8 yards per carry in becoming the first Baltimore runner with back-to-back 100-yard games since Justin Forsett in 2014 and just the second rookie in franchise history (Jamal Lewis, 2000) to hit that mark. The production is at least partially a byproduct of Jackson’s ability to burn defenses on the edges with his speed, which helps create lanes between the tackles for “Gus the Bus.”
If the playoffs were today … The Chargers and Steelers would meet in a first-round game at Pittsburgh. Which means the Sunday night matchup at Heinz Field could be a playoff preview, with L.A. (8-3) holding the AFC’s top wild-card slot and Pittsburgh (7-3-1) falling to the projected fourth seed after its upset loss at Denver. Of course, it wouldn’t be a big game involving the Steelers without extra drama. Which is why Ben Roethlisberger wears a dunce cap for throwing rookie receiver James Washington under the bus while also declaring he’s “earned the right” to publicly criticize teammates. Maybe that skewed view of leadership is one reason the Steelers have not been quite able in recent years to recapture Super Bowl glory. But at least they’re positioned for another run. Wary of Philip Rivers’ penchant for big-play completions, the Steelers might prefer to play the Chargers now than in January … when the loser goes home. Lose Sunday, and they might not have a choice.
Stomach for an upset: Vikings at Patriots. It’s one thing to shred a depleted Packers defense in your home dome. Now Kirk Cousins, who lit up Green Bay for 342 yards and three TDs last weekend, is challenged to upstage Tom Brady in Foxborough, Massachusetts, while in the thick of a playoff chase. Is that what an $84 million guaranteed contract is supposed to buy? The Patriots (8-3), with another AFC East title and firstround bye in their sights, are five-point favorites. When last seen outdoors, in Week 11, Cousins had his lowest-rated (76.5) game of the season. Then again, that deflated outing came against the punishing Bears defense. New England is not Chicago, which is why the Vikings (6-4-1) have a chance — and a better defense than Kansas City and Green Bay brought to Gillette Stadium this year — provided Cousins brings his A-game.
Did you notice? Case Keenum hasn’t committed a turnover in three games, which is a big reason the Broncos head to Cincinnati with a two-game winning streak. During Denver’s first eight games, the quarterback coughed up 11 turnovers.
Stat’s the fact: Julio Jones, leading the league with 1,305 receiving yards on 84 receptions, heads into the match against Baltimore needing 95 yards to become the first player in NFL history to post 1,400 yards in five consecutive seasons. The Atlanta star is on pace for a career-best 1,897 yards and, with a monster game or two, could have a legitimate shot at topping the NFL singleseason record of 1,964 receiving yards that Calvin Johnson, aka Megatron, set in 2012.
Baker Mayfield has Cleveland on a two-game winning streak, completing 78.2 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and no interceptions.