Browns in Deep Trouble, Matt Nagy's Bears Embarrass and More Monday Takeaways

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 21, 2021

Browns in Deep Trouble, Matt Nagy's Bears Embarrass and More Monday Takeaways

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    The reworked NFL schedule because of COVID-19 outbreaks around the league rewarded fans with a Monday night doubleheader.

    The Las Vegas Raiders and Cleveland Browns played a second-half thriller after a slow start to the game, which was originally supposed to be played on Saturday.

    Somehow, the depleted Browns, who had 18 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, including eight starters, found a way to gain a lead late in the fourth quarter, only to have the Raiders snatch the victory away with a game-winning field goal as time expired.

    However, neither team came out of this contest looking good. The same can be said of Monday's NFC counterpart. 

    The Minnesota Vikings faced the weakened Chicago Bears. Kirk Cousins and Co. claimed what turned out to be a relatively easy victory, though not everything clicked, which created some concern about the performance. Even so, the Vikings are still very much in the playoff hunt, while the Bears will probably consider a fresh start in the near future. 

    Those stories dominated Monday's action, with big swings in the playoff race having taken place thanks to the outcomes.

No Excuses, Browns Aren't Good Enough to Be a Playoff Team

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    How much did one COVID-stricken game mean to the Cleveland Browns? 

    In the matter of two minutes (actual game time), the Browns went from being the leader in the AFC North with a potential victory to the last-place team in the division with the 16-14 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. 

    "That locker room is hurting," interim head coach Mike Priefer told reporters after the contest. 

    Excuses can be made, but they don't matter. 

    The Browns had an opportunity to win the contest despite the extenuating circumstances and failed to do so. When the game was on the line, and the cobbled-together lineup needed one first down to secure the victory, Cleveland ran the ball three times and punted. 

    Yes, Nick Chubb performed well in the second half and finished with 91 rushing yards. At the same time, the Browns' lack of aggression with Nick Mullens behind center and predictable approach cost them an opportunity to take command of a division that was there for the taking. 

    Instead, a sad reality came to fruition. The Browns failed to reach every expectation placed before them this year after pushing the Kansas City Chiefs to the limit during last season's playoff run.

    Even before Monday's outcome, questions about Baker Mayfield's performance, the lack of production at the wide receiver position, including Odell Beckham Jr's departure, situational play-calling and potential holes within the defense, particularly along the defensive interior, already plagued the team. The COVID-19 outbreak only amplified the team's seasonal trend. 

    Sure, the 7-7 squad is still technically in the mix. But a meeting with the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Day followed by division matchups with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals to close the regular season isn't an easy path to navigate. These may not be the same old Browns, but the odds of sitting at home during the playoffs are all too familiar. 

Myles Garrett Loses Ground to T.J. Watt for NFL Defensive Player of the Year

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    The Cleveland Browns' Myles Garrett and Pittsburgh Steelers T.J. Watt entered this week's play in a neck-and-neck race to be named the 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. 

    Watt has clearly pulled ahead in the last two days. The Steelers recorded 1.5 sacks during Sunday's contest against the Tennessee Titans. In doing so, he became Pittsburgh's all-time single-season leader with 17.5 sacks. The outside linebacker also leads the league in the category. 

    Myles Garrett had been a dominant force, too, through the initial 14 weeks of play. Like Watt, he set his respective franchise's single-sack record with 15. But he didn't keep pace with his latest effort.

    The Las Vegas Raiders did an excellent job handling the 25-year-old defender and getting the ball out quickly. Jadeveon Clowney's absence certainly didn't help matters. 

    Aside from arguably Garrett's least impactful performance of the season, he suffered an injury that slowed him in the second half. The defensive end pulled a groin but continued to play through the soft-tissue issue. He plans to stay in the lineup through the next three weeks since Cleveland still has an outside shot of making the playoffs. 

    Garrett told reporters that someone would have to "kill" him or "break [his] leg" to get him off the field. The Browns absolutely need their superstar on the field, and he can still help them. However, his effectiveness over the next few weeks could be shot. His lack of explosion in the second half became obvious to all who watched. 

    Watt already has a slight edge after their latest performances. Garrett moving forward with a groin injury might be great for the Browns' locker room but not for his chances to be named the NFL's best defender. 

Raiders Win but Derek Carr and Co. Don't Inspire Much Hope

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    The Las Vegas Raiders escaped with a victory against the Cleveland Browns and should be happy with the outcome. Those on the outside can look at the Raiders' performance and come away with a completely different point of view. 

    The Raiders aren't good. They're a mediocre squad that survived against a severely depleted team and probably should have lost, all things considered. 

    This type of performance isn't anything new. The Raiders have a history of faltering down the stretch. Las Vegas' latest win halted a 1-5 skid after its bye week, and it scored more than 16 only once in that time. 

    To be fair, Derek Carr and Co. made the plays when they needed to. In fact, Carr has helped lead 28 comeback victories since 2014, which is tied for the most by any quarterback during that span, per ESPN Stats & Info

    The fact of the matter is that Las Vegas should have never been in that position at all. The Raiders struggled to take control of the contest even when the Browns managed a measly 93 first-half yards, half of which came during a two-minute drive. 

    Cleveland was down to its third-string quarterback. It was also missing both of its starting offensive tackles, running back Kareem Hunt, tight end Austin Hooper, defensive tackle Malik McDowell, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, first-round corner Greg Newsome II, nickel corner Troy Hill and safeties Ronnie Harrison Jr. and Grant Delpit. Yet the Raiders barely scraped by with a victory. 

    Now, Las Vegas is 7-7 and 10th in the conference. All three of the team's remaining opponents—the Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers—own records of .500 or better. The Raiders hold their fate in their hands based on who they play, but they're not good enough to claim a clean sweep through those three opponents. 

Bears One Game Closer to a New Regime

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The doomsday clock is about to strike 12 in Chicago with the Bears ready to blow apart their current organizational structure. A 4-10 start to the season is more than enough justification to move on from head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace. But the issues run deeper than a simple losing record.

    Chicago hired Nagy based on his offensive acumen as the former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator. To his credit, the coach was saddled with former first-round draft pick Mitchell Trubisky and the two found success in their first season together. Trubisky set career-highs in completion percentage, passing yardage, touchdown passes, QBR and passer rating. The Bears made the postseason that year, and Nagy won the NFL Coach of the Year award. 

    From there, the entire franchise declined in quality with back-to-back 8-8 campaigns. The Bears did the right thing this offseason by making an aggressive move to trade up and draft quarterback Justin Fields.

    Nagy and Co. didn't seem to have a real plan to develop Fields, though, and it shows every time the Bears offense takes the field and struggles. The flashes from Fields are obvious. He's highly athletic with ample arm talent. He's also a developmental prospect, who needs the proper structure to flourish. He's not getting it with Nagy designing the offense. 

    Monday's 17-9 loss to the Minnesota Vikings is another example of how the Bears continually fail to place their rookie signal-caller in a position to succeed. Aside from a late throwaway score with one second remaining and the game out of reach, the Bears' offensive scheme grows stagnant and doesn't provide enough outlets for Fields to execute, as a passer or runner. As an example, Chicago finished 1-of-5 in red-zone scoring against the Vikings. 

    "It starts with me, and it ends with me," Nagy said when asked about wasting a great defense. "I accept complete responsibility for that."

    All of this points to a move occurring sooner rather than later. CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora reported the Bears are "heavily mulling launching a coach search in the coming weeks." As Defector's Kalyn Kahler noted, teams who already fired their coaches can start interviewing next week. The removal of the current regime probably won't become a long-drawn-out affair. 

Vikings Offense Fails to Dominate Short-Handed Bears

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    The whole idea of Kirk Cousins not being able to perform during primetime contests was silly from the start, especially when the concept is built around the mythical idea of quarterback wins. 

    The Minnesota Vikings won Monday night even though Cousins didn't play well at all. 

    The victory keeps the Vikings alive in the NFC with a 7-7 record. But the performance definitely didn't earn the team any style points, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. 

    Cousins completed 50 percent of his passes for 87 yards against a depleted Bears secondary. Depleted may be too kind of a word. All four of Chicago's starting defensive backs didn't play Monday. 

    Up to this point in the season, the Vikings quarterback had been highly effective. The idea of not being able to exploit such an obvious advantage is worrisome if/when Minnesota faces more complete teams.

    Frankly, head coach Mike Zimmer isn't comfortable with Cousins sitting back in the pocket and allowing the passing attack to be the offensive focal point. 

    Zimmer told reporters that the Vikings threw the ball too much when facing the Bears' outstanding pass rush. Surely, the coach must understand his squad must be able to create chunk plays in the passing game even against the league's better opposition.

    Over the next three weeks, the Vikings are basically in an extended playoff run with games against the Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers and Bears for the second time. Minnesota currently owns the NFC's seventh seed, but it's only half a game better in the conference standings than the New Orleans Saints, who share the same overall record. 

    "It's not just playing better, it's getting better," Zimmer said. "... We're trying to get better."

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