Arizona Cardinals vs. Cleveland Browns: Matchups, prediction for showdown of former Sooner quarterbacks

Which Sooners QB -- Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray -- will have the better game in the Week 6 Arizona Cardinals vs. Cleveland Browns matchup?

The 3-2 Cleveland Browns host the undefeated Arizona Cardinals Sunday in a showdown of recent No. 1 picks out of the University of Oklahoma — Baker Mayfield for Cleveland, Kyler Murray for Arizona. Mayfield and Murray were teammates for two years in Norman, both winning the Heisman Trophy under Lincoln Riley in back-to-back seasons. The Cardinals are 3-0 on the road this year, with all three wins by double digits, but coach Kliff Kingsbury will miss the game after testing positive for COVID-19. The Browns have yet to lose at home, beating the Texans in Week 2 and the Bears in Week 3. Who comes out on top in the Arizona Cardinals vs. Cleveland Browns battle?

Arizona Cardinals offense vs. Cleveland Browns defense

Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury has quieted the doubters this season, with the Cardinals scoring 31+ points in each of their first four games. The sledding was a bit tougher against the 49ers in Week 5 (Arizona scored just 17 on 304 yards). Was that just a one-week blip or a blueprint for the Browns to follow? Probably the former. The Cardinals still rank fourth in scoring (31.4 points per game), sixth in total offense (413.2 yards per game), seventh in efficiency (6.3 yards per play), and fifth in red-zone success (71.4%).

The Browns have their own challenges. They’re tasked with slowing down an MVP candidate for the second time in eight days.

Cleveland just got lit up by Los Angeles Chargers star Justin Herbert, who incinerated the Browns’ defense for 398 yards and 4 touchdowns on 43 attempts. The Chargers went for 7.3 yards per play in a 47-42 victory. But that was out of character for a unit that had played quite well in the first four weeks. Even after that hiccup, the Browns still rank fourth in total defense (298.8) and yards per play allowed (5.1).

Kyler Murray vs. Browns defense

Year 3 has seen it all come together for Kyler Murray. But his MVP-worthy start is not some overnight success. It’s been building for the last three seasons.

Murray’s completion percentage has gone from 64.4% as a rookie, 67.2% in his second season, and through five games, 75.2% in 2021 — which leads the NFL. His touchdown percentage (3.7-4.7-6.1), yards per attempt (6.9-7.1-9.2), yards per game (232.6-248.2-302.4), and passer rating (87.4-94.3-113.0) all have seen the same improvement. It’s a testament to Murray’s efficiency (and his teammates) that he is fifth in yards per attempt despite averaging the 11th-lowest air yards per attempt (7.6). Murray’s QBR (68.5) ranks third in the NFL.

Cleveland’s defense is impressively talented but wildly inconsistent. A week after getting torched for 337 yards and 3 touchdowns by Patrick Mahomes, the Browns caused Justin Fields to have one of the worst performances by an NFL quarterback in recent memory. So will the Browns have another bounce-back game this week? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Even with two poor games, Cleveland’s pass defense still ranks 11th in both yards allowed per game (223.2) and per play (6.7).

Advantage: Kyler Murray

Cardinals weapons vs. Browns defensive backs

Talk about an embarrassment of riches. Six Cardinals players already have 16+ receptions, including four — DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, and Rondale Moore — who are on pace for 800-yard seasons. That balance has eased the burden placed on Hopkins, who’s on pace for his fewest targets per game (6.8) since his rookie season.

But Arizona’s depth will be tested going forward. The Cardinals recently lost tight end Maxx Williams for the season with a knee injury. Running backs Chase Edmonds and James Conner have combined for 664 yards from scrimmage and 5 touchdowns.

We got an excellent idea of just how important rookie cornerback Greg Newsome II is to the Browns’ defense last week. The secondary looked lost with Newsome, the 26th pick in last April’s NFL Draft, sidelined for a second straight game by a calf injury. With Newsome out, Greedy Williams and Troy Hill played more than they should have.

Williams saw a season-high 13 targets (with 8 completions for a touchdown and 65 yards), and Hill surrendered 19 yards per completion. The Browns are hopeful to have the combo of Newsome and Denzel Ward back together in Week 6.

Advantage: Cardinals

Cardinals offensive line vs. Browns defensive front

The good news for the Cardinals’ line? Their five starters are responsible for roughly half of Murray’s 10 sacks. The bad news? They’ve committed more than a dozen penalties and haven’t been great in goal-line situations.

But it’s hard to truly evaluate a line when asked to block for a player like Murray, who thrives off-script and extends plays. But Murray is healthy through five weeks, so they’re doing something right. Left tackle D.J. Humphries and left guard Justin Pugh are the best of a bunch that is middle of the pack in rushing efficiency and sack rate. Center Rodney Hudson (ribs/shoulder) won’t play.

That group will be tested by a Browns defensive front that has recorded 22 tackles for loss in five games. Each week we write about how great Myles Garrett is, and each week he proves why he deserves even more credit than we’ve given him. He has an NFL-leading 7 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, and 16 quarterback hits on the year.

Garrett’s running mate, Jadeveon Clowney, has been dealing with elbow and knee injuries that kept him out of the Chargers game. Clowney is a big part of a run defense that ranks second in yards allowed per game (75.6) and third in yards allowed per rush (3.4).

Advantage: Browns

Cleveland Browns offense vs. Arizona Cardinals defense

Running back Nick Chubb is out at least this week and perhaps beyond with a calf injury, which is a major concern. Chubb is second to only Derrick Henry in rushing (523 yards and 4 touchdowns on just 90 carries), and the Browns are the best rushing team in all of football.

They churn out 187.6 yards per game and 5.4 per carry. That’s bonkers. It’s also a big reason why the Browns rank second in time of possession (34:46), and with Chubb available, he would have helped Cleveland keep Murray off the field. Kareem Hunt will now get the start.

Expect the Browns to still try to run the ball — and have success doing so. The 49ers needed just 28 carries for 154 yards in Week 5. On the year, the Cardinals rank 13th in total defense (353.4) and 14th in defensive efficiency (5.7) but are sixth in scoring defense (19.0 per game) because they forced 10 turnovers — third-most through five weeks.

Baker Mayfield vs. Cardinals defense

Do the Browns trust Baker Mayfield? It’s a valid question after a two-week stretch that’s included one of Mayfield’s worst game in years and a blown lead against the Chargers in which Kevin Stefanski dialed up a run on third-and-9 from the Browns’ 15 with Cleveland clinging to a one-point lead with less than three minutes to go in the game.

Elite quarterbacks throw the ball past the sticks there and win the game. Instead, the Browns punted back to the Chargers and promptly gave up a game-winning touchdown.

Playing conservative will not be enough against the Cardinals, whose defense ranks third in third-down D (31.6%), sixth in yards per pass (6.2) and interception rate (2.9%), and eighth in pass defense (214.4). The Cardinals exposed Trey Lance in the rookie’s first NFL start. They can expect a more competent opponent this weekend — even if Stefanski doesn’t completely believe in his QB.

Advantage: Cardinals

Browns weapons vs. Cardinals defensive backs

Jarvis Landry’s injured knee has made enough progress that the five-time Pro Bowler was able to do a little at practice this week. The Browns really could use him back. It likely won’t be this Sunday, however, meaning it’s imperative Mayfield figures out a way to get Odell Beckham Jr. the ball.

Mayfield threw 32 passes in Week 5, but just 3 targets went to Beckham. It’s inexplicable. Tight end David Njoku is coming off a monster game in which he had a 71-yard touchdown catch.

Cardinals cornerback Byron Murphy Jr.’s 3 interceptions are second to only Trevon Diggs’ 6 — and Diggs has to be the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year. Murphy has sore ribs that kept him out of the Niners game and practice Wednesday, but he was back in uniform Thursday. Marco Wilson, who also has a rib issue, is trending in the right direction too. Arizona’s interception rate (2.9%) is sixth in the NFL.

Advantage: Push

Browns offensive line vs. Cardinals defensive front

Left tackle Jedrick Wills is still dealing with the effects of an ankle injury that kept him out of the Chargers game. He’s questionable for Sunday. If he can’t go, the Browns could face the same issue they did in Week 5 when Joel Bitonio had to move from left guard to tackle. That’s because backup Chris Hubbard is out for the season with a triceps injury.

But Cleveland’s offensive line deserves credit for how it performed in less-than-ideal circumstances last week. The talented group allowed just 1 sack, averaged 6.6 yards per carry, and kept Joey Bosa in check. Wills is one of three starting linemen listed as questionable. Tackle Jack Conklin and center JC Tretter are the others.

The Cardinals have their own triage of challenges, with star pass rusher Chandler Jones on the reserve/COVID-19 list. He accounts for 43.8% of the team’s quarterback hits in 2021. Even more will be asked of J.J. Watt, who was impactful in Arizona’s Week 5 win over San Francisco. Watt had 2 tackles for loss and 4 QB hits. Watt’s edge-setting will be put to the test by Cleveland. The Cardinals allow the second-most yards per carry in football (5.4).

Advantage: Browns

Betting line and game prediction

A series that dates back to 1950 has been one-sided, with the Cardinals winning just 15 of 51 all-time meetings. But the Cards seem to be the better team this time around, with a superior record, point differential (+12.4 per game to +5.6), and DVOA (third in the NFL to sixth). But the Browns are better than their record, as evidenced by their +118.8 yard differential average, the second-best in football. That’s why we think the oddsmakers, who list the Browns as 3-point favorites, have it exactly right.

Prediction: Browns 27, Cardinals 24

Adam Beasley is the National NFL Analyst and Insider for Pro Football Network. You can read all of Adam’s work here and give him a follow on Twitter @AdamHBeasley.

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