CLEVELAND — Baker Mayfield knows all about the Browns‘ tortured history over the past two decades. It’s been jammed down his throat.
Almost from the moment he was drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, Mayfield’s been told about the expansion era horror stories of botched drafts, devastating injuries, coaching mistakes, paralyzing dysfunction and losing. So much losing.
Mayfield can’t deal with Cleveland’s painful past. So why try?
“I was not here for all that,” he said. “I was here to change it, and that is what I am doing.”
It’s true. The Browns (3-1), three years removed from an 0-16 season and owners of the NFL’s current longest playoff drought, are off to their best start since 2001. Flaunting a well-balanced, high-scoring offense and a ball-hawking defense, Cleveland is one of the league’s early surprises in 2020 — to everyone, that is, but the Browns.
“You look at the games that we won, and it was not like it was a fluke,” said star receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who had three touchdowns in last week’s win at Dallas.
Maybe not, OBJ. But the Browns’ three wins after being blown out in their opener at Baltimore have come against teams with a combined 3-8-1 record, which makes Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts (3-1) a true test of Cleveland’s legitimacy as a, dare we say it, playoff contender.
The same case could be made for the Colts, who shook off a Week 1 loss to Jacksonville and have won three straight. But Indy’s schedule over the season’s first quarter was equally soft, so Cleveland will be a good measuring stick — for now.
The matchup will feature the NFL’s top rushing team (Cleveland averages 204.5 yards per game) against the league’s best overall defense; the Colts lead in points allowed, yards and interceptions.
“We are playing as a unit. We are playing smart,” said Indianapolis coach Frank Reich. “We have been good against the run. It starts with stopping the run. That is why this week is going to be such a challenge, it will really put that to the test.”
It might have gotten a touch easier as the Browns will be without Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb, who sprained his right knee in last week’s win at Dallas and could be sidelined for a month or more.
Kareem Hunt will likely get most of Chubb’s carries as first-year Browns coach Kevin Stefanski isn’t expected to stray from a formula that has been working.
“No one replaces Nick Chubb,” said Browns guard Joel Bitonio. “The guy is a stud. That one hurts seeing him go down for a little bit, but it is the NFL and that kind of stuff happens, unfortunately.”
If there was a silver lining in Chubb’s injury, it’s that the Browns played most of last week without him and thrived.
Hunt rushed for 71 yards and two TDs, and D’Ernest Johnson, who came in with five career carries, added 95 on 13 attempts.
It figures to be much tougher sledding against a Colts front anchored by tackle DeForest Buckner, proving to be worth every penny of his $21 million per year contract after coming over in a trade from San Francisco.
“Game wrecker,” Reich said. “He’s like Myles Garrett, a force against the run and the pass. His impact is felt on every play.”
OLD MAN RIVERS
Colts quarterback Philip Rivers can add two more milestones to his resume this weekend.
Sunday’s start will be the 38-year-old’s 229th in a row, tying him with Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews for the fourth-longest streak in league history.
And with four completions, Rivers will be the fifth NFL player with 5,000 in his career. Earlier this season, Rivers became the sixth with 60,000 yards and 400 touchdown passes.
He only tracks one stat.
“You always want to keep improving and getting better and if you’re winning along the way, that’s a pretty good sign,” Rivers said. “Find a way to win, do the things necessary to win, those are all good traits of a team that’s got a chance to improve and do something special.”
WE’LL TAKE THAT
Cleveland’s defense, led by a rejuvenated Garrett, has forced eight turnovers the past two weeks and leads the league with 11 takeaways. Garrett has a strip sack in three straight games, and coordinator Joe Woods said he’s looking for every opportunity to find matchups for the speedy, strong end.
“I feel like if we can get him one on one, he has a chance to win every time,” Woods said.
The Colts entered this season thinking linebacker was one of their deepest positions. After four games, it may be their thinnest.
Backup Matthew Adams went on injured reserve after hurting his ankle in Week 3. Last week, three more linebackers were injured: Darius Leonard (groin), Bobby Okereke (thumb) and E.J. Speed (elbow).
Reich hasn’t ruled out anyone other than Adams, but it’s certainly not ideal when facing the league’s top-rated rushing offense. Leonard and Okereke missed practice time this week. Speed was limited.
“We just have to get to them, get to them fast. Don’t let the running back start up,” cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. “Once they touch the ball, we have to get to them as fast as possible because they have some great runners, some hard runners.”