It’s intriguing enough that Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in the draft, is getting his first NFL start in the “Black Hole.” On top of that, he’s starting for a Cleveland Browns team that’s riding high after an extremely rare win.
And there’s more. It has been about a decade since Jon Gruden won a game as an NFL coach. The desperate Gruden is 0-3, with three fourth-quarter flameouts, in his depressing return to Oakland.
It probably sounds crazy to say Cleveland-Oakland could be the most fascinating game of the week — not counting Ohio State-Penn State on Saturday — but the storylines are worth watching.
How will the Browns handle success? That question has not been posed in a long time. Mayfield will swagger in after a week of hype. In relief last week, he was 17 of 23 passing for 201 yards to lead a 21-17 comeback victory over the New York Jets. Before everyone gets too excited, remember the Jets are coached by Todd Bowles and Sam Darnold is a mistake-riddled rookie QB.
This is a monstrous game for Gruden. The last thing the $100 million man needs, after his trade of defensive superstar Khalil Mack killed morale, is a home loss to the Browns and the clueless Hue Jackson.
Cleveland ranks 11th in scoring defense (19.7 points per game) and impressively slowed Drew Brees in the Superdome two weeks ago. Derek Carr has completed 76.6 percent of his passes — No. 2 in the league behind Brees — but he also has five interceptions. Carr needs to clean up the bad throws, and the Raiders need to find ways to pressure Mayfield into a few rookie mistakes. I did rank Mayfield as the best QB in the draft class and believe he’s the real deal.
This game sparked a heated debate and a high-stakes bet between VSiN colleagues Brent Musburger and Jonathan Von Tobel on Monday. The veteran radio voice of the Raiders is supporting the short home favorite, while young gun JVT is going all-in on the Browns.
Reluctantly, I’ll lay 2½ points with the Raiders. (The Browns are available at plus-3.) Carr is no rookie, and Oakland’s offense has plenty of weapons — Marshawn Lynch, Amari Cooper, Jordy Nelson, Martavis Bryant — capable of putting together a complete game. It’s a lot to ask of the Browns to win in back-to-back weeks.
Four more plays for Week 4 (home team in CAPS):
* Seahawks (-3) over CARDINALS:
Another rookie quarterback is getting his first start after appearing in relief a week ago. Josh Rosen’s debut in Arizona was weak, although it happened under difficult circumstances. Rosen could be the next Jay Cutler (big arm, losing attitude) and he’s taking over the league’s 32nd-ranked scoring offense at 6.7 points per game. Seattle ranks in the league’s top 10 in pass defense. It’s difficult to envision Russell Wilson losing to Rosen. The line has moved to 3½ at several books, yet 3 minus-120 is available.
* GIANTS (plus-3½) over Saints: For the fourth week in a row, I’ll take the Giants getting points. After a narrow loss to Jacksonville and a pathetic performance in Dallas, the Giants finally showed up on both sides of the ball in a 27-22 win at Houston. Eli Manning hit on 25 of 29 passes for 297 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, rookie Saquon Barkley rushed for 82 yards and a TD and Odell Beckham Jr. had 109 yards in receptions. That’s how the New York offense is supposed to look. The New Orleans defense has been a mess, ranking 30th in yards allowed (421 per game) and last in scoring (34.3). The Saints have played games that totaled 88, 39 and 80 points. The total in this one is 52. Drew Brees has a red-hot hand, completing 80.6 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and no picks. It will be tough to beat Brees, but this is a Saints team that should have started 0-2 at home and now hits the road for a second straight week.
* Ravens (plus-3) over STEELERS: Joe Flacco usually wakes up from his slumber to play well in Pittsburgh. In December, he lost a 39-38 shootout to Ben Roethlisberger. Baltimore ranks No. 1 in total defense (273 yards per game) and No. 5 in scoring (17.0). The Steelers rank 29th in total defense (410.3 yards per game) and 28th in scoring (30.0). Early-season statistics can be misleading, but the Pittsburgh defense has problems.
* BRONCOS (plus-4½) over Chiefs: The betting public has been wise to roll with Patrick Mahomes, who has 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions in three relatively easy victories. Fading the young gunslinger and expecting him to hit a speed bump was a costly play the past two weeks. Kansas City is No. 1 in scoring at 39.3 points per game. Denver’s defense has been solid against the run, ranking No. 4 by allowing only 77.7 yards per game, but a No. 22 ranking against the pass is a problem. Vance Joseph’s coaching is an issue, too. The Broncos are playing soft coverage in the secondary as receivers run free all over the field. It’s up to the Von Miller-led pass rush to put some heat on Mahomes. Denver is getting 4½ points now, but the line should go back to 5 by kickoff, and I’ll roll with the Monday night home ‘dog.
Last week: 3-2 against the spread