A critical battle for AFC playoff seeding will occur Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium when the 5-4 Cleveland Browns battle the New England Patriots.
The Patriots appear to be hitting their stride and are riding a three-game winning streak, while the Browns are back in the win column after a dramatic week involving former wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
Is the wrong team favored in this game? Let’s break it down.
- Opening line: New England -0.5
- Current line: New England -2.5
- Total: 45
Cleveland keeping its season alive
Despite a rash of injuries and serious drama involving Beckham, the Browns are still somehow 5-4. What was supposed to be a great season for Cleveland hasn’t panned out quite as expected. But the Browns are somehow still alive, and they might be better than their record indicates.
The Browns rank sixth in total DVOA, fifth in offensive DVOA, 12th in defensive DVOA, and have 6.4 estimated wins, the fifth most in the league. Cleveland’s on-field performance finally started to mesh with what the analytics said last weekend when they steamrolled the Cincinnati Bengals, 41-16, and were led by 153 rushing yards.
The Browns put an even greater emphasis on the running game last week, handing the ball off 23 times compared to 21 pass attempts. Cleveland’s at its best when it’s gashing chunk yardage on the ground, and that’s especially true given Baker Mayfield’s shoulder injury. If the Browns can continue to seize control and take the pressure off Mayfield, they’ll be primed for similar success.
Not having Nick Chubb due to COVID-19 protocols hurts, but not enough to completely sway the spread. With Kareem Hunt still out with a calf injury, the Browns will turn back to D’Ernest Johnson, who ran for 146 yards a few weeks ago as the featured back against Denver.
Defensively, Cleveland’s only area of weakness is against the pass, where it ranks 19th in DVOA. However, Cleveland’s secondary hasn’t been at full strength for most of the year and is finally rounding into shape. Plus, the Browns have been able to generate pressure at the second-highest rate in the NFL. Better health in the secondary could help this defense improve significantly.
How good are the Patriots?
The Patriots are a difficult team to figure out. What they lack in talent, they make up for in coaching. Yet, I can’t get myself to view this team as much more than slightly above average. DVOA appears to agree, as they rank New England 13th overall. But of New England’s five wins, four have come against the Jets, Texans, and Panthers.
Mac Jones has undoubtedly delivered the earliest returns among the 2021 rookie quarterbacks. However, the Patriots still can be reluctant to take the training wheels off him. Like Cleveland, New England prefers to control the game on the ground and keep their rookie passer ahead of the chains. This offense is hardly prolific, though, ranking just 17th in rushing DVOA and 21st in passing DVOA.
New England’s offense also has injuries in its running back room, as Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson are both at risk of missing Sunday’s game with concussions. New England might be forced to rely on Brandon Bolden and J.J. Taylor, who aren’t quite as good running between the tackles.
Defensively, Bill Belichick has done another really good job. New England wins with a scheme, not necessarily talent. The Patriots’ defense ranks fifth in defensive DVOA and sixth against the pass. However, it ranks just 17th in rush defense DVOA, something the Browns could exploit.
I have a hunch the wrong team is favored in this one. Cleveland has the more talented roster and could find success on the ground even without Chubb. I also suspect Jones could struggle against the most fearsome pass rush he’s seen this season.
While I’d lean on taking the points, I feel more confident in the under. Both teams prioritize the ground game but will be missing key players out of the backfield. And neither the Browns nor Patriots have enough explosive pass catchers for this game to turn into a shootout. This feels like a close, grind-it-out game that comes down to the final possession.
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