The Week 15 NFL schedule brings us a meeting of the last two Heisman winners, as Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns pay a visit to his former backup, Kyler Murray, and the Arizona Cardinals. Kickoff is at 4:05 EST on Sunday, December 15 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Fans in local markets can watch the game on CBS.
Oddsmakers list the Browns as 2.5-point favorites on the road with an over/under of 48 points. Click here to check out a full list of this week’s NFL betting odds.
The Browns floundered early in the season amidst unusually high expectations, but they’ve come on strong the second half of the season to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. Despite a setback against the Steelers a couple of weeks ago, Cleveland has been victorious in four of their last five games, pushing them to 6-7 on the season.
Granted, the Browns will need some outside help to claim the second Wild Card spot in the AFC. But Cleveland’s schedule is favorable enough to give them a fighting chance. While two of their three remaining games are on the road, the Browns play the Cardinals and Bengals in those games. Sandwiched in between is a home date with the Ravens, who the Browns beat on the road earlier this year. If Cleveland can win all three of those games, they’ll have a chance to sneak into the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Arizona, on the other hand, is dead in the water under first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury. The Cardinals have lost six in a row, dropping them to 3-9-1 on the season. In their defense, Arizona’s schedule in the NFC West has been challenging. The Cardinals have also had plenty of close calls along the way, including a 6-point home loss to Pittsburgh last week.
Nevertheless, a 3-9-1 record has the Cardinals in line for another top-10 pick and a fourth straight losing season. Road games with the Seahawks and Rams after this week’s home finale aren’t likely to yield late-season consolation wins. If the Cardinals want to surpass last year’s win total of three games, this week’s game with the Browns figures to be their best chance.
I don’t usually like leaning toward teams that are rocking six-game losing streaks. However, I remain bullish on the Browns, who I don’t trust as road favorites. Keep in mind that all four of their recent wins have come at home. Meanwhile, they’ve lost four straight on the road. There are a few things that make me uneasy about trusting the Browns to cover on the road, so I’ll take my chances with the Cardinals finally snapping their losing skid.
First on my list of concerns is the Cleveland offense. Admittedly, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have become a dangerous backfield combination. But the offensive line and passing game continue to be problems for Cleveland. With his two interceptions last week, Mayfield has now thrown more picks than touchdown passes this season. Despite a strong running game backing him up, Mayfield isn’t someone who can be trusted, especially on the road. Against a weak Cincinnati defense last week, Mayfield completed just 11 of his 24 passes for less than 200 yards.
In Mayfield’s defense, his offensive line has let him down throughout the season. Cleveland has conceded 33 sacks this season, with 20 of them coming on the road. Meanwhile, putting pressure on the quarterback is one of the few things the Arizona defense excels at. Chandler Jones is once again one of the best pass rushers in the league with 14 sacks on the season. He should help make life difficult for Mayfield, continuing to make him vulnerable to foolish mistakes and turnovers.
On the other side of the ball, I don’t feel good about the Cleveland defense, especially on the road where they won’t have the Dog Pound helping out. The run defense has been particularly poor for the Browns, who were shredded by the Bengals last week. The Cardinals, of course, aren’t a great rushing team. Then again, neither are the Bengals, who racked up 179 yards on the ground against the Browns last week.
The numbers say that Arizona is an average rushing team. But with David Johnson and Kenyan Drake, they surely have the backs to expose a poor Cleveland rush defense. That doesn’t even take into account Murray’s running abilities, which make him a handful for opposing defenses. Like Mayfield, Murray can be turnover-prone at times and has endured plenty of growing pains this year. But he also shows flashes of his talent and potential almost every week, throwing at least two touchdown passes in four of his last five games.
Ultimately, I don’t feel comfortable taking the Browns as a favorite, even against the struggling Cardinals. Cleveland has a poor record on the road and considerable flaws on both sides of the ball. That should be enough to keep the Cardinals in the game, leaving the door open for Murray to make plays in the fourth quarter against a tired defense. To be honest, this game could go either way, which is why I like my chances with the home underdog against the spread.