With Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns coming to town on Sunday, the New England Patriots’ takeaway-happy defense should be licking their chops.
How do you create a recipe for certain disaster?
Put two NFL teams on the same field for three-plus hours: one that leads the league in turnover differential by a wide margin (+14), and one that is ranked fifth-worst in giving the ball up (-6).
The New England Patriots are that first team, a 7-0 powerhouse with potentially one of the best defenses in NFL history. Their turnover differential is double that of the second-place team behind them, the Pittsburgh Steelers (+7). Similarly, New England’s interception total this season (18) is double the number of the second-place team in that metric, the Carolina Panthers, who have nine.
At the other end of the turnover spectrum is the 2-4 Cleveland Browns, a long-suffering franchise that began this season with legitimate aspirations as a Super Bowl contender. Largely thanks to the subpar play of their second-year quarterback, Baker Mayfield, the Browns now are just hoping to improve upon their 2018 record of 7-8-1. Only the Miami Dolphins, New York Giants, Cincinnati Bengals, and Atlanta Falcons have a worse turnover differential this season than Cleveland.
To say that Mayfield, a former Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall draft pick, has regressed in 2019 is a massive understatement.
Last season, he broke the NFL record for most touchdown passes by a rookie QB (27) while completing 63.8% of his passes, throwing 14 interceptions, and finishing with a quarterback rating of 93.7.
This season, Mayfield is completing 56.6% of his passes, has thrown more interceptions (11) than he’s thrown touchdowns (five), and has a quarterback rating of 66.0. All of this, despite the fact he now has one of the best wide receivers in the NFL to throw to in Odell Beckham Jr., the No. 4 rusher in the league behind him in Nick Chubb, and an improved defense supporting him that ranks No. 6 in passing yards allowed per game and No. 9 in sacks on the season.
Mayfield has always been a dangerous player – he famously gave us the quote that he “woke up feeling dangerous” after a win last season – but that danger is more often than not a double-edged sword. Sometimes, Mayfield shows flashes of brilliance that remind everyone why he’s often considered the most talented player on the field. Other times, he’s reckless and wild with the football, and his mistakes ultimately end up costing him and his team the win.
The former Oklahoma Sooner QB has yet to play a game this season without throwing a pick. For that matter, he also has yet to play a game with more touchdown passes than interceptions in his final stat-line. In half of his games, Mayfield has thrown more balls to the opposition than he’s thrown to his own teammates in the end zone, and all three of those games were double-digit losses.
Mayfield and the Browns have had a whole extra week to try and sort out all the miscues and practice a more efficient brand of offensive football. It also doesn’t hurt that Cleveland got their bye week right before a road trip to Gillette Stadium where they’ll face the defending champions, who haven’t lost at home since Week 4 of the 2017 season.
And yet despite all the additional time that Mayfield, head coach Freddie Kitchens, and the rest of the Cleveland team has had to prepare for undefeated New England, it’s hard not to imagine the Browns walking straight into a lions’ den on Sunday afternoon.
Or perhaps the more appropriate phrasing would be “straight into the Boogeymen’s lair,” or “straight into a haunted house,” considering the nickname for the Patriots’ linebacking group and this game’s close proximity to Halloween.
So far this season, the New England defense has picked off Ben Roethlisberger once (Week 1), picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick three times and Josh Rosen once (Week 2), picked off Luke Falk once (Week 3), picked off Josh Allen three times and Matt Barkley once (Week 4), picked off Colt McCoy once (Week 5), picked off Daniel Jones three times (Week 6), and picked off Sam Darnold four times (Week 7).
That’s 18 interceptions off nine quarterbacks they’ve faced. How do you think this defense must be feeling, knowing the next sacrificial lamb they have on the altar is Baker Mayfield, a quarterback who’s already thrown 11 picks and who’s averaging nearly two interceptions per game?
Instead of asking whether or not the Patriots defense will continue their pick party at the expense of the most turnover-prone quarterback in the league this year (they will), perhaps the more interesting question to ask is who on this New England D will come down with the most balls Sunday afternoon?
So far, Devin McCourty leads the team in interceptions through seven games with five. That’s already tied for the second-most picks he’s had in a single season, and it leads the entire NFL by a comfortable margin as well. With another two picks, he’ll tie his career high set way back in 2010 when he was a rookie and he still played cornerback; with three more interceptions, he’ll obviously set a new milestone for himself altogether.
Stephon Gilmore and Jamie Collins are both tied for second-place behind him with three interceptions apiece. Collins started off the year hot but has since cooled down a bit in recent weeks, whereas Gilmore began 2019 a bit quietly and now seems to be heating up and transforming more into a ballhawk every week.
J.C. Jackson and Duron Harmon are tied for third-place with two picks each. Finally, fourth-place is a three-way tie between John Simon, Terrence Brooks, and Jason McCourty with one interception each.
Even though the Browns have more often than not turned the ball over through the air courtesy of Mayfield slinging interceptions, they could also fall prey to the Patriots’ penchant for forcing (and then recovering) fumbles as well.
Collins and Kyle Van Noy have each forced two fumbles this season. Simon, Jonathan Jones, and Deatrich Wise Jr. have each forced one. Additionally, Van Noy has recovered two fumbles this season, and both Collins and Matthew Slater have recovered one fumble apiece.