The Los Angeles Chargers are above .500 for the first time this season. The Cleveland Browns have a chance to climb above that mark for the first time since 2014.
The Chargers will go for their third straight victory and attempt to hand the Browns their first loss at home when the teams square off Sunday at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Browns (2-2-1) have already doubled their win total from their previous two seasons combined after squeezing out a 12-9 victory in overtime over the Baltimore Ravens last weekend. The win pushed Cleveland’s record at home to 2-0-1 this season.
“This football team will fight,” Browns head coach Hue Jackson said. “We don’t do anything perfectly by any stretch of the imagination, but they work hard. They’re becoming something. If they will continue to take the coaching, keep working hard and keep doing the things that we’re asking them to do, we’ll have many more victories.”
While Cleveland is among the league’s most improved teams, the Chargers already have ample reason to be wary of the Browns. Los Angeles lost at Cleveland 20-17 in 2016 — the Browns’ lone win that season — and struggled to a 19-10 home win over winless Cleveland last year.
“That was a scary game for us,” Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said. “And now they are just learning how to win. They have won some close games but they could be 4-1. It is a dangerous football team.”
Cleveland’s two losses have both come on the road — a 21-18 setback at New Orleans and a 45-42 defeat in overtime at Oakland in Week 4.
The Browns have received a boost since turning to rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield. The No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, who came off the bench in relief of an injured Tyrod Taylor in Week 3, has provided the team with production and a swagger.
“He has sparked them and he has probably added a lot of energy outside the building and inside the building,” said Lynn. “I thought he was a heck of a player coming out (of college). He plays with a lot of confidence and that is the way to go about it.”
Los Angeles features the most potent offense the Browns will have faced since playing the Saints in Week 2. The Chargers have scored at least 20 points in all five games this season. Philip Rivers has thrown 13 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. He is receiving excellent protection and has been sacked only six times.
Running back Melvin Gordon, who has scored a touchdown in four straight games, is leading a rushing attack that, when combined with Austin Ekeler’s contributions, is impressive. The tandem has combined for 1,005 yards from scrimmage with nine touchdowns. Gordon ranks eighth in the NFL with 334 rushing yards and is the team’s second-leading receiver with 28 catches for 261 yards.
“Right now things are running smoothly on offense and it could not be more balanced,” Lynn said. “Our offense has always been about adjusting to Philip’s skill-set,” Lynn said. “That is what you have to do when you have a quarterback of that caliber.”
Getting into a shootout Sunday with Rivers would not benefit the Browns. A low-scoring, tight game will allow offensive coordinator Todd Haley to utilize running backs Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson Jr. and Nick Chubb.
Hyde leads the Browns with 348 yards rushing and five rushing touchdowns on 100 carries.
“I think we can compete with any team in this league,” Hyde said. “We have a really good group of guys and things are definitely going up for us. As long as we keep fighting the way we’ve been fighting and keep working the way we’ve been working, things will work out in our favor.”
Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen made history in last year’s game against the Browns when he caught 10 passes and gained 100 receiving yards while scoring a touchdown for the third week in a row. With the emergence of fellow wideout Mike Williams, defenses are being spread thin.
Allen could be matched up against Browns rookie cornerback Denzel Ward, the No. 4 overall pick who has three interceptions and was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week on Wednesday. Defensive end Myles Garrett has five sacks for Cleveland.
“It’s going to be a dogfight,” Lynn said. “But they all are so it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.”