As the Cleveland Browns cling to slim playoff hopes, they’ll face one of only two teams in the NFL that’s locked up a postseason berth, the Green Bay Packers, to open up a Christmas Day doubleheader. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have won three games in a row and three NFC North titles in a row after a Week 15 win over the Baltimore Ravens. Meanwhile, the Browns are coming off a rash of COVID-19 issues and a heartbreaking loss Monday against the Las Vegas Raiders that dropped them to the AFC’s No. 12 seed. With head coach Kevin Stefanski and quarterback Baker Mayfield back for Saturday, ‘tis already the Browns’ postseason realistically as they look to stay alive in the AFC postseason race against the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
Here are three things to watch for when the Packers host the Browns:
- Rodgers aims to unwrap another gem. Like a number of all-time greats, Rodgers’ astounding play can often be taken for commonplace, but it’s really something to behold. His latest run of greatness is particularly impressive. Over the last four games, in which the Packers have gone 3-1, Rodgers has thrown for 1,301 yards (325.25 per game) and 13 touchdowns with no interceptions. Rodgers and the Packers offense is rolling right now, having surpassed 30 points in each of their last four. As the Packers look to keep hold of the NFC's No. 1 seed and assure that the NFC playoffs go through Lambeau Field, Rodgers is looking to further his legendary Green Bay career. He sits at 442 career touchdown passes and can break a tie with Brett Favre for the most in franchise chronicle. He’ll look to do it playing on Christmas for the second time. On Christmas Day 2011, he owned the rival Chicago Bears to the tune of five TD tosses in a 35-21 Green Bay triumph.
- Will Baker’s return bode well for Browns? Having endured an assortment of injuries throughout the season, Mayfield was sidelined in Week 15 due to COVID-19. But after being activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list Friday, he's back for Saturday’s holiday showdown and the continuation of a chaotic 2021 campaign. There’s been the injuries, the controversy ahead of Odell Beckham’s departure and the often wearisome play. Mayfield’s inaccuracy has become a common theme (he completed less than 53% of his passes for three straight weeks before a 68% showing in Week 14). Still, in two games without Mayfield this season, the Browns averaged 15 points and 306 total yards, compared to 21.8 points and 346.9 yards per game with the former No. 1 overall pick. Every point and every yard matters all the more at this point and the Browns are looking for back-to-back postseason trips for the first time since 1985-89. Can Mayfield’s return spark a return to the playoffs?
- Tough sledding for top backs. Two of the league’s most respected backs will be featured in Saturday’s matchup, but the Browns’ Nick Chubb and the Packers’ Aaron Jones will each face formidable run defenses. Though the Browns lost on Monday, Chubb rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown, breaking a three-game scoreless streak and rebounding from a two-game drought in which he ran for season-lows of 16 and 59 yards in Week 13 and 14, respectively. He’ll face a Packers defense that’s 12th in the league against the rush and do so with backfield mate Kareem Hunt out yet again. Green Bay, however, will have its one-two punch of Jones and A.J. Dillon. Jones hasn’t run for more than 59 yards since Week 6, with Dillon becoming the leading ground gainer most games, though Jones’ 58 yards led the way in Week 15. Cleveland boasts the No. 5 total defense (eighth versus the pass and ninth against the run). It’s a tough go for both backfields. The Browns’ rushing game is vital in the hopes of opening up the play-action game for Mayfield. The Packers’ running attack hasn’t had to be at its best with Rodgers playing as he has, but with their eyes on the prize of a Super Bowl run, a balanced attack must come to fruition.
The Indianapolis Colts are surging. The Arizona Cardinals are not. However, it’s the Cardinals who can -- for a third consecutive week -- clinch a playoff spot, while the Colts must continue their hot streak to stay within the AFC playoff bubble. It will be a star-studded affair that features a league-high seven Pro Bowl selections on Indy and four more from Arizona. With playoff implications aplenty and no shortage of star power, the most enticing aspect still might well be Jonathan Taylor taking center stage on a Saturday night for a second consecutive week. What does the 2021 season’s most dynamic talent have in store? Well, it’s definitely one of many reasons to watch the Colts-Cards showdown.
Here are three things to watch for when the Cardinals host the Colts:
- Another Taylor-made Saturday night. This season has largely been a Taylor tour de force, but it reached a new decibel level in a Week 15 Saturday evening showcase in which Taylor exploded for a 67-yard touchdown run to trample the Patriots. With fantasy footballers in their postseasons and the Colts looking to inch closer to their postseason, Taylor’s Saturday encore is a salivating proposition. The leading Pro Bowl vote-getter and MVP candidate leads the NFL in rushing yards (1,518), rushing touchdowns (17), scrimmage yards (1,854) and scrimmage TDs (19). Taylor’s found the end zone in 11 consecutive games. Perhaps not coincidentally, Taylor did not score in the Colts’ first three games as they got off to an 0-3 start. Of all of Taylor’s amazing numbers, perhaps most astonishing is he’s only 22 years old. A season ago, Saints star running back Alvin Kamara lit up Christmas night with six touchdowns, tying the all-time mark for rushing scores in a game. Surely another performance such as that isn’t in store for the holiday. Then again, Taylor’s ability to break a big run at any time has been thrilling to watch and anticipate all season long. If nothing else, Taylor will make for must-see viewing as the Cardinals do their darndest to stop him from being the running back who keeps on giving all night long.
- Will ball bounce Kyler, Cardinals’ way? Once upon a time, the Cardinals were the last undefeated team in the league. Now, Kyler Murray and the Cards have lost their last two, both of which prevented them from clinching a playoff berth. A week after getting upset by a then-one-win Detroit Lions team, Murray and Co. will face a red-hot Colts squad that features the league’s most consistently opportunistic defense. Indianapolis is the only team to have forced a turnover in each game this season and shares the NFL lead with 31 takeaways. In a mind-spinning stat, the Cardinals lead the league with 26 fumbles, but have lost a league-low three as part of 14 total giveaways. In the three games since Murray returned from his ankle injury, Arizona has gone 1-2 and the QB has thrown three touchdowns and three interceptions. After losing five of their last seven a season ago, the Cardinals and Murray will have that shadow of collapse surrounding them until they’re able to get that elusive victory that sends them to the postseason for the first time since 2015. It could happen Saturday night -- or the Colts could take it away.
- Can Wentz win it if Cardinals focus on Taylor? Though Murray is the face of the Cardinals’ franchise, the Arizona defense has quietly been an impressive entity this season. Featuring Pro Bowlers Chandler Jones and Budda Baker, the Cardinals defense is seventh in total D, fifth in scoring and fifth against the pass. It has, however, been susceptible to the run (tied for 17th), which bodes poorly when attempting to corral Taylor. The unheralded Craig Reynolds had 112 yards rushing for the Lions in their Week 15 upset of the Cardinals. Colts head coach Frank Reich has made it known he realizes QB Carson Wentz will have to be the “star of the game” for Indy a time or two. It would be unsurprising to see Arizona defensive coordinator Vance Joseph put an onus on slowing Taylor. And, in turn, the Cardinals might very well force Wentz, who went just 5 of 12 for 57 yards a week ago, to beat them.