In a battle of 8-3 teams, the Tennessee Titans are set to host the Cleveland Browns on Sunday afternoon. This could be the first time since 2002 that both franchises reach the AFC playoffs with the Titans leading the AFC South and the Browns in the first wild card position.
Cleveland Browns vs. Tennessee Titans
Sunday, December 06, 2020 – 01:00 PM EST at Nissan Stadium
Despite the equal record and lack of a home-field advantage in 2020, the Browns are a 6-point underdog at most NFL betting sites. This is because Cleveland has been outscored by 21 points this season, the worst scoring differential in NFL history for an 8-3 team. However, both teams can claim that beating Indianapolis is their biggest win of the season, so this is a good litmus test for both heading into the final quarter of the year.
Game of the Year for Running Backs
If you enjoy the old-school approach of running the football to win in the NFL, then this is your most anticipated game of the season. These are two of the only offenses in the league that have a legitimate argument for building around the running game.
Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, arguably the best back today, leads the NFL with 256 carries for 1,257 yards this season. The best two-headed monster at running back in the NFL belongs to Cleveland with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Chubb has missed four games this season, but he leads all running backs with 6.3 yards per carry.
In a league where running backs are the dime-a-dozen position, these have been special players for their offenses. Henry has scored two game-winning touchdown runs in overtime this season and always gets his touches every week. The Browns are 6-1 when Chubb plays, and he has rushed for at least 114 yards in each of his last three games since returning from injury.
Both offenses will want to run wild on Sunday, but which defense is more reliable against the run? Statistically, they are quite similar. The Browns have allowed 4.1 yards per carry while the Titans are at 4.3. By DVOA, which adjusts for opponents and the down-and-distance, the Titans (ranked 17th) are only slightly ahead of the Browns (20th). Both defenses have allowed six opponents to rush for over 100 yards, with each team allowing one 200-yard performance. Interestingly enough, both defenses allowed a season-low in rushing yards to the Colts this season.
If there is a reason to favor the Browns here, it is the return of superstar defensive end Myles Garrett, who missed the last two games and most of the Las Vegas loss where the Browns had their worst game of the season on run defense. However, Garrett’s best value is still rushing the passer, which is where he needs to make his biggest impact as we know Henry is still getting his 20-plus carries either way.
Can Baker Mayfield Be Trusted?
If we assume the running games cancel each other out, then it will come down to which quarterback plays better. Ryan Tannehill has proven himself as a reliable starter with the Titans, throwing 45 touchdowns to 10 interceptions in the regular season. He is having another solid season and has improved his most troubling statistic in 2019: his high sack rate. Tannehill has cut down his sacks from a rate of 9.8% to 4.3% this year. This is despite the loss of left tackle Taylor Lewan in Week 6.
Meanwhile, Baker Mayfield has been less than reliable for Cleveland. He finally got to air the ball out more on Sunday in balmy Jacksonville after three straight tough weather games at home. However, he missed a few easy throws with inexplicable inaccuracy. This has been a problem all season as Mayfield has the second-highest rate (22.3%) of bad throws in 2020, according to Pro Football Reference.
With both offenses leaning heavily on the run, they both use a lot of play-action passing. Tannehill leads all quarterbacks with 1,121 passing yards off play-action while Mayfield is fifth (817). Mayfield holds the ball as long as any quarterback this season, but his protection has been more than adequate.
Mayfield is 4-14 in his career against teams with winning records, including a 1-7 road record. That one win was a 40-25 shocker in Baltimore a year ago. This season, the Browns have lost 38-6 and 38-7 in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The Titans are rarely winning by more than six points this season, but Mayfield will have to have one of his best games to pull this one out.
There is a good chance for a competitive, high-scoring game here. The total is 53.5 points. Both defenses are shaky and both offenses have shown big-play capability this season. The Titans are also still allowing teams to convert 52.6% of the time on third down, the worst rate in the league.
The Browns have been scraping by bad teams for more than a month now. The Titans seem to have found a groove again after a comeback in Baltimore and a big win in Indianapolis last week. I like for Henry to outdo the Cleveland duo on the ground, and for Tannehill to outplay Mayfield in a 31-24 type of win for the Titans.