With all due respect to the potential start Los Angeles Rams QB John Wolford may have to make against the Seattle Seahawks, the quarterback playoff debut all eyes will be fixated on is Baker Mayfield’s against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Even though he’s only been in the NFL three seasons, Mayfield’s every move is dissected and cross-examined due to his selection as the number one overall pick by the Cleveland Browns in the 2018 NFL Draft. He’s went from hopeful superstar in year one under offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, to overrated potential bust in year 2, to leader of a playoff team in his third season.
It feels like he’s had quite a full career arc in short NFL career, but that trajectory is about to take another bend when he steps on to the field against the Steelers.
Before we look forward to his first career playoff game, let’s look back at his first career game in the NFL. While it was not the bright light stage Heinz Field will be on Sunday night, Mayfield’s first game may give us a glimpse of how he handles “firsts” at football’s highest level. Against the New York Jets in September 2018, the University of Oklahoma product led the Browns to their first win since 2016, which gave the game a little more underlying pressure than a normal Thursday night football affair.
Mayfield threw for 201 yards in that contest on a modest 23 attempts, but the most important statistic in that game was that he didn’t turn the ball over. He has a reputation of being excitable and sometimes overly amped for games, but in his NFL debut, that didn’t register itself in a way that would tangibly negatively affect the Browns.
We can also look at Mayfield’s first game that meant something—Week 17 of the 2018 season against the Baltimore Ravens. Sure, it didn’t mean anything for Cleveland, who was already eliminated from playoff contention, but it meant everything to the Ravens. The Browns had to show up in Joe Judge preferred fashion in order to give other teams hoping for a Ravens loss some sense that it could possibly happen.
Also check out: Complete 2018 NFL Draft Results
And show up, they did. Mayfield did throw three interceptions, a couple of which were ill advised, but performed admirably against a Baltimore team with everything to play for. He matched his interception total with 3 touchdowns of his own, and also made a tremendous play outside the pocket at the end of the first half to give the Browns a field goal opportunity before the half.
Fast forward to the present(since it’s hard to use last week’s game against the Steelers as a true litmus test with so many reserves playing), and there is reason for optimism for Mayfield and the Browns. While their matchup against the Steelers defense was made a lot tougher due to the projected absence of G Joel Bitonio, Cleveland should be able to produce enough on the ground with the explosive tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
The real key might be the absence of head coach Kevin Stefanski, who like Bitonio, also tested positive for COVID-19 and figures to not be a part of the Browns’ game day operations. Stefanski’s approach this season has worked wonders for the team, and has allowed Mayfield to pass not when he has to, but as a change of pace after Chubb and Hunt have drawn linebackers and safeties into the box. It will be fascinating to see if offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt is tabbed with guiding Cleveland’s offense on Sunday, and if he will remain true to the formula that was worked so well this season.
Baker Mayfield Projected Stats: 23/38, 279 yards, 2 TD’s, 2 Int’s.Published 06 Jan 2021, 08:38 IST