May­field young, brash but also good

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NFL - Jar­rett Bell

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.

KEN BLAZE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Baker May­field has Cleve­land on a two-game win­ning streak, com­plet­ing 78.2 per­cent of his passes with seven touch­downs and no in­ter­cep­tions.

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