The 5-4 Cleveland Browns visit New England this weekend to take on the 5-4 Patriots in a game that should have significant playoff implications. Both teams are in the heart of the AFC post-season race and with the NFL passing its halfway point, the time to make a push is now.
Here are the 10 players to watch from the two teams that are both on the rise.
Mac Jones, QB: Jones completed just 12 passes against the Panthers, as the defense took over in the second half and took the pressure to throw off of the young quarterback. But against a stout Browns run defense, the pressure will be on Jones and the passing game to move the ball through the air. For the season, Jones is completing 68 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions for 2,135 yards.
Jakobi Meyers, WR: Coming off a season-low one-catch performance, Meyers played a limited role against the Panthers, but he remains the most trusted third-down target on the roster, quickly approaching a career-high catch total with 46 receptions for 434 yards after catching 59 balls last season. Meyers will be a key piece to keeping the chains moving against Cleveland as he looks for a bounce-back effort.
Brandon Bolden, RB: Bolden made a major impact against the Panthers in limited opportunities, as he's continued to grow into the third-down back role while delivering in key spots. If the Patriots choose to avoid running into top-ranked Cleveland run defense it could be a big game for Bolden, especially if Damien Harris or Rhamondre Stevenson are unable to play.
Lawrence Guy, DL: As usual, Guy has been under the radar this season, but his performance against the Panthers was one of his best this season as he led the way in one of the most dominant defensive efforts of recent memory. Guy's high-energy impact against the run will be in high demand against the Browns rushing attack. He'll have a sizable challenge against the stout Cleveland offensive line.
Ja'Whaun Bentley, LB: Bentley is easily having the best season of his career, coming in with a PFF defensive rating of 80.7, topping a previous high of 66.0 in 2020. Once again, Bentley will be a key piece against Cleveland's ground attack, another spot where Bentley has set career highs this season (69.2). His anticipation and ability to blow plays up in the backfield could make a dramatic impact on the game.
Baker Mayfield, QB: The pressure could be on Mayfield this weekend if he's without Nick Chubb to provide an explosive rushing attack. Mayfield has just eight touchdowns in nine games this season, but has thrown just three interceptions. Coming off his best performance of the season, an efficient 14-of-21 performance for 218 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 41-16 win over the Bengals, he'll look to carry over that success against a Patriots defense that is also rounding into form.
D'Ernest Johnson, RB: With Nick Chubb and Demetric Felton's status up in the air after positive COVID-19 tests, Johnson is the only healthy running back left on the roster. He's been solid in recent weeks while helping fill in for the injured Kareem Hunt, highlighted by a 22 carry, 146 yards, one touchdown performance in a 17-14 win over Denver. Like Brandon Bolden, it might all be on Johnson.
Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR: With Odell Beckham gone, it puts even more focus on Peoples-Jones, the Browns' deep threat who is averaging over 20 yards per reception for the second-straight year to start his career. With three touchdowns, Peoples-Jones is the kind of game breaker who can quickly change the dynamic of a contest. The Patriots will need to have an eye on him and prevent the big passing plays.
Myles Garrett, DE: Garrett has 12.0 sacks, easily on pace to top his career high of 13.5 as the 2017 first-overall pick has been the kind of game wrecker who can be a problem on every down. The edges of the Patriots' offensive line must be on point against Garrett, who will require constant attention. The Pats' tackles will need their best game of the season.
Denzel Ward, CB: The 2018 fourth-overall pick is ascending into one of the top cornerbacks in the league, highlighted by his 99-yard interception return last week against the Bengals that started the scoring off. Mac Jones must be aware of Ward and not let him impact the game with a similar kind of big play.