The 6-7 Browns are now 4-1 in the second half of the season after handling the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-19, to notch their fourth straight win at FirstEnergy Stadium. Now, they will travel to the Valley of the Sun in search of the first road win since back in Week 4 against the Baltimore Ravens. The Cardinals sit at 3-9-1 on the year and have dropped six straight games, including back-to-back games at home to the Rams (34-7) and the Steelers (23-17).
This game has plenty of storylines, but none is as incredible as the story of the two quarterbacks, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. In 2017, Mayfield was the starting QB at the University of Oklahoma, won the Heisman, and went on to become the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Murray was Mayfield's backup in 2017 and ascended to the starting job when Mayfield headed to the NFL. All he did was go out and win the Heisman last year and became the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. It is the only time in that two players from the same school, who played the same position, have been consecutive Heisman Trophy winners and consecutive No. 1 picks in the NFL draft.
It should also be noted that this one will have a very personal feel to both the leader of the Browns and the top man on the Browns defense. Head coach Freddie Kitchens spent 11 years as an assistant coach for the Arizona Cardinals, longer than any other assistant in franchise history. He will now return as the head coach of a team that is still clinging to playoff aspirations. The same is true for Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who was the head coach of the Cardinals last year, his only season with the team.
Cool storylines aside, this is a critical game for the Browns to keep their playoff hopes alive. They have to go in to Arizona and get a win against a team they are favored to beat. With that in mind, let's take a look at how the Browns can emerge victorious over the Arizona Cardinals.
1. Air Raid
Just like the matchup with Miami, the Browns' passing attack has a real chance to light things up this week against a struggling Arizona pass defense. Against Miami, Mayfield had his best game of the year, completing 24 of his 34 pass attempts for a season-high 327 yards and three touchdowns. He led the Browns to touchdowns on four of their first five drives in the game and connected with both Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry for scores, the only time that has happened all season.
Those kind of prolific numbers could happen once again this week as the Cardinals are allowing an average of 311.5 yards and 2.5 touchdowns passing per game to opposing quarterbacks, both of which are most in the NFL. Opposing quarterbacks are posting a QB rating of 114 this year against Arizona, also the highest in the NFL this year.
Last week, the Steelers and Duck Hodges did not throw much against the Cardinals, but he still completed 16 of his 19 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown in the Steelers win. In the five games prior to that conservative approach from Pittsburgh, quarterbacks had thrown for a total of 1,899 yards (380 yards per game) and 14 touchdowns (2.8 per game).
In other words, this could be a bonanza. The Cardinals' struggles against tight ends are documented in my matchup to watch for the week (spoiler alert: they are the worst team in the NFL defending the position). Wide receivers are catching nearly 75 percent of their targets and producing nearly 200 yards and a touchdown per game against Arizona. Even running backs have had some monster weeks catching the ball against them. Two of the last four teams to face Arizona have gotten more than 12 catches and 105 yards receiving from their runners, so even Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb could really get in on the receiving mix this week.
When you can throw the ball all over the yard, it usually leads to a lot of points. Over the last six games, the Cardinals have allowed 30-plus points four times and are allowing 30.3 points per game. The Browns are 5-1 this year when they hit the 20-point mark and undefeated when they exceed 30 points. So, let's get an aerial assault from Mayfield and the pass catchers, light up the scoreboard and have a fun Browns win.
Check out photos as the team travels to Arizona to play the Cardinals by team photographer Matt Starkey
2. Neutralize Chandler Jones
The only thing that could potentially slow down the Browns offense on Sunday would be a dominant pass rush from the Cardinals and their mega star, Chandler Jones.
Jones enters Week 15 with 14 sacks on the season, second-most in the NFL. He now has 55 sacks in 61 career games since joining the Arizona Cardinals and leads the NFL in sacks during that span (Aaron Donald is No. 2 with 50.5 sacks). He has at least 13 sacks in three straight seasons, and it should be noted that only Reggie White has produced 13-plus sacks in four straight seasons, a feat he accomplished not once, but twice.
Jones has also been great at making his sacks become game-changing plays. Jones leads the NFL with six strip sacks and six forced fumbles. Keeping Jones away from Mayfield will be critical to the success of the Browns passing attack and will go a long way toward preventing the kind of game-changing play that could really give the Cardinals some life.
Last week, the Browns starting tackles Greg Robinson and Kendall Lamm allowed just one combined pressure against the Bengals. They were able to shut down Carlos Dunlap, who entered that game as the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week. They will need to do the same again this week against Jones, who will line up against both tackles this week at pretty much an even rate.
Jones will not have his running buddy and longtime Browns nemesis, Terrell Suggs (5.5 sacks this season), who was released by the Cardinals on Friday. Cassius Marsh is Suggs' backup on the team's depth chart and has one sack this season. That means the Browns should be able to give all the extra attention they need to Jones, who certainly warrants it because stopping Jones from wreaking havoc has to be priority No. 1.
3. Contain Kyler Murray
Murray is having a sensational rookie season that has seen him throw for 3,060 yards with 16 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. Murray has also been dynamic with his legs and leads the Cardinals with 448 yards rushing to go with four rushing touchdowns. It should be noted that all of those stats represent Arizona Cardinal rookie records for quarterbacks as well.
Murray is one of the three quarterbacks in NFL history with 3,000-plus passing yards and 400-plus yards rushing in his first 13 career games, joining both Cam Newton and Deshaun Watson.
From a passing touchdown standpoint, Murray has been boom or bust this year. He has seven games with multiple passing touchdowns, which is just two games shy of Mayfield's NFL rookie record of nine games with multiple passing touchdowns. However, in the other six games combined, he has failed to throw a single touchdown pass.
Now, containing Murray is no easy feat and will require great discipline by the Browns pass rushers and whomever is charged with "spying" him while he's in the pocket. When you look back at the Cardinals' three game winning streak, one thing really jumps out regarding Murray the runner.
In those three games, Murray had 10-plus carries in every game (his only games all year with 10 carries) and totaled 31 carries for 153 yards and a touchdown. His activity as a runner clearly opened things up for the rest of the Arizona offense because it put up 87 points in those games (29 per game), its most in a three-game stretch at any point this year.
Looking at the last six weeks for Murray, which includes the recent games where his hamstring has been a bit of an issue, shows a significant decrease in rush attempts and yards. In those games, Murray has totaled just 28 rushes for 182 yards and two touchdowns. So, while his yards per carry are up, the rushing utilization is way down, and teams are doing a better job against him as a passer as a result.
Over the last three games, Murray has not passed for 200 yards in any game, has produced four touchdowns but has thrown four interceptions and led his team to just under 17 points per game. If the Browns can keep Murray down and the offense shines through the air as expected, this could end up as a nice, comfortable win in the cozy climate of Phoenix.