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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After experiencing health issues in 2018, Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees is returning for his 16th year as an NFL coach. Once he received a clean bill of health, coming back was an easy decision.

“I feel great,” Pees said. “I got a couple of things cleaned up, and I am feeling as good as I’ve felt in a long time.”

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His return is significant for a unit that is looking to ascend to a championship level. The Titans allowed a season-high 38 points against the Colts in Week 11 when Pees was taken to the hospital with an unknown medical condition during the first quarter at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis.

Pees believes his group has the potential to be a championship defense.

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“We are very close,” Pees said. “I don’t know where we finished this year, but I know we were in the top 10 in most of the categories and we felt good about that. I had a lot of players come in at the end of the season and talk to me and really felt good about everything, and that is the key thing.”

Under Pees, the Titans finished third in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 18.6 points per game. And opposing teams scored a touchdown on 44.6 percent of their red zone trips against Tennessee, the league’s second-best mark, trailing only the Eagles (44.3 percent).

The players say they are prepared thanks to the tip sheets Pees provides. For example, safety Kevin Byard’s red zone interception against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 9 happened because of a tip from Pees. Byard said Pees alerted the defense to a specific part of Cowboys right tackle La’el Collins’ stance that indicated he was going to pass block. Dallas called a play-action pass, but Byard never bit on the run fake thanks to the tip from Pees, which allowed him to pick up the wide receiver running a crossing route and intercept the pass.

Pees dialed up timely blitzes that resulted in sacks by sending Byard or cornerback Logan Ryan after the quarterback. Safety Kenny Vaccaro said Pees’ playcalling is like, “Jordan in the fourth quarter.” But the scheme will only get the Titans so far.

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The defense has holes to address, such as finding an impact pass-rusher. Outside linebacker Harold Landry, a second-round pick in 2018, is the Titans’ best option, but fourth-year linebacker Kamalei Correa is their veteran edge rusher. The Titans should add a veteran free agent such as Za’Darius Smith, who posted 8.5 sacks for the Ravens last season — including three against the Titans.

Pees had an integral role in the Ravens selecting Smith in the fourth round of the 2015 draft. He was at Smith’s pro day in Kentucky and told him he’d be a Raven. And having Pees in place lessens the risk of the scheme not matching the player, because Smith has already excelled in the same system. Smith would give the Titans a player who can line up at outside linebacker in base defense and as a four or five technique in nickel packages. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey draws a lot of attention from opposing offenses and needs a running mate who can take advantage of one-on-one matchups.

Adding a pure outside linebacker in the draft — such as Florida’s Jachai Polite, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat or Florida State’s Brian Burns — would be the finishing piece for the Titans’ defense. A rookie could provide pressure off the edge, giving quarterbacks less time to wait for the wide receivers to run their routes, thus helping the secondary.

Re-signing Vaccaro is a necessity as well. He quickly became a player who set the tone for the defense last season. Former Titans safety Michael Griffin pointed out that Vaccaro and Byard gave Pees a group similar to the Super Bowl XLVII-winning secondary that featured Ed Reed (ballhawk) and Bernard Pollard (thumper).

Tightening things up on the back end is crucial for the Titans’ defense to take the next step. The secondary struggled early in the season, giving up big plays such as Eagles wideout Jordan Matthews’ 51-yard touchdown reception and a 75-yard score by Chargers receiver Tyrell Williams, but they rebounded and finished with seven plays of 40 yards or more allowed.

“Whenever you have a secondary that doesn’t give up big plays, you are going to have a heckuva defense,” Pees said.

The continued development of linebackers Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans will help as well, but it all starts with Pees.

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The Detroit Lions have hired Darrell Bevell as their new offensive coordinator.

Bevell replaces Jim Bob Cooter, whose contract was not renewed by the team earlier this month. The Lions ranked 23rd in rushing yards per game (103.8), 20th in passing yards per game (223.5) and 24th in points per game (19.38) this past season.

Bevell was offensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks from 2011 to ’17. He was fired by Seattle after the 2017 season.

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Bevell helped the Seahawks reach two Super Bowls — including a win against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. But the 49-year-old is perhaps best known for calling a pass play on the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX against the New England Patriots. Malcolm Butler intercepted it, securing a win for the Patriots, whose defense at the time was coached by Matt Patricia, the Lions’ current head coach.

The pass play was largely criticized because the Seahawks had Marshawn Lynch, one of the game’s best short-yardage rushers. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll took all the blame for the call for following the loss.

During Bevell’s time in Seattle, the Seahawks averaged 131.9 yards rushing, 216 yards passing and 23.99 points per game. Most of this was done with Lynch at running back and Russell Wilson at quarterback.

When the Lions set out on an offensive coordinator search, general manager Bob Quinn said it would be largely Patricia’s hire. Patricia, coming off a 6-10 season in his first year, has seemed to favor a ball-control offense with a strong rushing game — the type Bevell ran with the Seahawks.

Quinn said in his season-ending news conference that more than anything, Detroit wanted a coordinator who could adapt his offense by the week.

“We want to be able to run the ball, we want to be able to use our quarterback because he has a ton of talent. So we want to be diverse,” Quinn said. “We’re not going to sit there and be in four wide receivers, shotgun every play and throw it 45 times. That’s not good for anybody. On the other hand, we’re not going to be three tight ends and run the ball 40 times.

“We need to do a better job of going into each week looking at the opponent and say, ‘How are we going to beat this team?’ If they have a great run defense and a poor pass defense, maybe we throw it 45 times and vice versa. So, we want someone that thinks that way. That thinks that, ‘Hey, I have an offense, but my offense is adaptable. I can change week-to-week, or I can change from this week I have this set of receivers, and two weeks later I don’t.’

Prior to his time in Seattle, Bevell was the Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator for five years.

While there, the Vikings averaged 133.2 rushing yards and 201 passing yards per game.

Bevell played quarterback at Wisconsin, where he was a four-year starter, and overlapped with Quinn at Connecticut, when Bevell was the Huskies’ wide receivers coach in 1998-99 and Quinn was a graduate assistant within the football program.

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The coaching staffs of the Los Angeles Chargers and Dallas Cowboys have been selected to lead the Pro Bowl teams.

Anthony Lynn and his Chargers staff will coach the AFC team while Jason Garrett and his Cowboys staff coach the NFC team.

The Chargers finished 12-4 in the regular season and lost to the Patriots 41-28 in the divisional round on Sunday. The NFC East champion Cowboys were 10-6 in the regular season and lost 30-22 to the Rams on Saturday night.

Each team also will have two “Legends Captains” — one offensive and one defensive. Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly and linebacker DeMarcus Ware will lead the AFC. Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith (offense) and Brian Urlacher (defense) will lead the NFC.

The Pro Bowl is Sunday, Jan. 27, in Orlando, Florida.

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The New York Giants disbanded last week after a 5-11 season that ended with three straight losses. It was an improvement, however slight, on their 3-13 campaign from the previous year, when they didn’t have star running back Saquon Barkley or — for the most part — Odell Beckham Jr.

The lack of tangible success didn’t seem to matter much, as general manager Dave Gettleman barely finished with the pleasantries at his postseason news conference before he declared that the team is “headed in the right direction.” He surely wasn’t alone. That was the overarching feeling when this last-place team departed for the offseason. There was a collective belief that the Giants are “close” to being a good team, one that could compete for the playoffs and — dare we say it for a team with the second-fewest wins the past two seasons — compete for a Super Bowl.

Delusional or not, this is how the Giants were able to sell things internally throughout a disappointing campaign in which they lost eight games by seven or fewer points. It is perhaps the biggest accomplishment for coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Dave Gettleman in their first season together. They have created a room full of believers.

“Honestly, we’re building. We’re taking steps closer and closer each and every time, every game and loss. Like Mr. Gettleman said, every game within the last 12 games was lost by less than a touchdown, besides the Eagles. Stuff like that, we’re just a touchdown away from being in the playoffs,” safety Landon Collins said before leaving for the offseason. “We’re growing, and we’re a better team than we were last year. And we showcased that. I’m glad for the opportunity to show that.”

A 4-4 second half of the season (with all four wins coming against backup quarterbacks) and some peripheral growth made this possible.

More wins than the previous year, check.

A revamped locker room, no doubt.

A team that didn’t quit and lost some tight games, you got it.

That was apparently all the Giants needed to convince themselves and their players that they are on the verge of being serious contenders.

“Yeah, I think we are, and I think that’s sort of where our conversation is going today is we are very close,” Shurmur said late in the season. “But right is right — you’ve got to win. And I think as we start building and as the players get better, as we improve, as we understand situations and how to play each situation better, then eventually this thing pushes over the top.”

There are reasons for the Giants to be optimistic. They made sweeping changes following the debacle of 2017 that cost Ben McAdoo and Jerry Reese their jobs. The Giants had just 15 players (even though they keep saying 13) on the active roster in Week 17 who were part of the organization the previous year.

This was somewhat expected, though not to this degree. That’s a heckuva lot of turnover in the span of a year. But in came Gettleman and Shurmur last offseason with new ideas and systems, and they needed players to fit their desires. So they overhauled the roster (some good moves, some bad) and still admittedly have work to do. They built a culture and laid the foundation that they believe has them set for future success.

Giant improvement next season?

History suggests that the Giants are in line to improve their win total next season. Here are the teams with the most losses by seven or fewer points since 2006 and how they did the following season.

YEAR TEAM LOSSES BY 7 OR FEWER WIN INCREASE FOLLOWING SEASON
2013 Texans 9 +4
2011 Vikings 9 +7
2018 Giants 8 ?
2016 Jaguars 8 +7
2016 Chargers 8 +4
2015 Chargers 8 +1
2015 Giants 8 +5
2014 Bucs 8 +4
2012 Lions 8 +5
2010 Cowboys 8 +2
2006 Lions 8 +4
It will take time. This was never a one-year fix. And they deserve some time to implement their plan for the rebuild, even if they publicly refuse to admit it is that.

“I just hate the word rebuild. You just keep going, you just keep building. It’s really what we’re doing here,” Gettleman said. “We’re doing our best to accumulate the talent that fits our schemes and that understands how to play the game and hates to flippin’ lose. That’s what it’s really all about, and we’re going to continue to do this and get it right. We’re going to fix it.”

The Giants undoubtedly need to figure out their quarterback position for the present and future. That will be vital to their long-term success. But all the close losses do portend a better 2019.

The Giants lost their last two games by a point each. They were the first team in NFL history to accomplish that inglorious feat. They lost eight games by seven or fewer points, the most of any team this season. Even though three of those games (first half of the season losses to the Cowboys, Falcons and Redskins) were only cosmetically close because of last-minute scores, recent history indicates that all those close defeats are a bit of an anomaly. The following year is rarely as rough.

Eight of the past 10 teams to lose at least eight games by seven or fewer points saw their win totals increase by at least four games the following the season. That includes the 2015 Giants, who were 3-8 in close games. They flipped that the following season (8-3), won 11 games and reached the playoffs for the only time since 2011.

Of course, when considering just how “close” the Giants are to being serious contenders, the market correction can account for only so much. Yes, the Giants should improve. They have the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, can build off some of the gains from this past season and have salary cap space (projected in the $40 million range, depending on cuts) at their disposal.

But they also need to be honest with themselves when looking at the roster. A team on the precipice of contention rarely has an aging quarterback or a bridge QB behind an offensive line that remains a work in progress and a barren defense desperately in need of a massive talent infusion.

Close to competing for the playoffs? Maybe. Close to competing for a Super Bowl? At this point of the process, the Giants might want to rethink that assessment.

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Baker Mayfield has often been described as cocky, and Lamar Jackson has impressed teammates with his humility. Jackson strikes fear with his explosive speed, and Mayfield beats defenses deep with a strong arm and fearlessness.

While Jackson and Mayfield appear as opposite as their draft positions — Mayfield was selected at the top of the first round and Jackson at the bottom — they are more similar than many would think.

That’s according to tight end Mark Andrews, one of the few people who would know. In college, Andrews was Mayfield’s favorite pass-catcher at Oklahoma. In the NFL, he has become a popular target for Jackson.

“In terms of personality, guys like that have a certain thing about them – the ‘It Factor,’ I call it,” Andrews said. “They’re someone that you want to be around. There’s something about them that makes people gravitate towards them. They both have that. I think that speaks a lot to who they are and what they’re all about.”

These rookie quarterbacks are among the headliners for Sunday’s game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns. Jackson and the Ravens (9-6) can clinch what has been an elusive AFC North title with a win. Mayfield and the Browns (7-7-1) can secure an even more elusive winning record by beating Baltimore.

It will mark the first time in the Super Bowl era that two first-round quarterbacks face off as rookies in the final game of a season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Even though Jackson and Mayfield have never played against each other on the field, they’ve gone head-to-head against each other over the years. In 2016, Jackson won the Heisman Trophy and Mayfield finished third. In 2017, Mayfield won the Heisman and Jackson finished third.

Does it feel like Jackson has already competed against Mayfield?

Lamar Jackson might not be as brash as Baker Mayfield, but he has every desire to win. Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports
“No, not at all,” Jackson said. “He’s just playing a part for his team. He’s just doing his thing, and I just do mine — that’s all. We all want to win at the end of the day. So definitely, you can say that.”

Mayfield said he got to know Jackson and his family pretty well through the two Heisman ceremonies and the pre-draft process.

“Great guy,” Mayfield said. “He is someone who is fun to be around and makes it enjoyable so I would assume it is the same when it is coming to work every day.”

Jackson and Mayfield have been two of the most successful quarterbacks over the past two months. Since Week 10, they each own 5-1 records, and only three quarterbacks have more wins over that span (Drew Brees, Andrew Luck and Dak Prescott).

Over those seven weeks, Mayfield has the NFL’s second-best passer rating at 115.2. He has passed for 1,581 yards, throwing 14 touchdowns and four interceptions.

Since taking over as the Ravens’ starter in Week 11, Jackson has rushed for the eighth-most yards (466) in the league. He has broken five runs of 20 yards or more, and only Saquon Barkley and Josh Allen have produced more.

“[Jackson] is kind of unique in the way he plays the game, which is a positive,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You have to try to find unique ways to utilize guys like this. I think the coaching staff in Cleveland has done a great job with Baker in doing the same thing.”

Andrews received a text from Mayfield this week wishing him a Merry Christmas. But Andrews knows Mayfield’s real intentions this week.

Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield met on the Heisman Trophy circuit, where each claimed the award once. Todd J. Van Emst/USA TODAY Sports
“He’s a killer,” Andrews said. “He doesn’t mess around. He’s fully intent on ruining our season. We’ll be ready for it.”

Would Andrews classify Jackson as a “killer” as well?

“Yeah, there’s no doubt. It’s a little bit different type of killer,” Andrews said. “Lamar hates to lose. He’s a guy that’s … you know, you’re down, you can rely on him, he’s going to do everything he can to win – whether it’s running the ball for fourth-and-inches or whatnot. He’s a guy that’s going to make the play. You saw it in the game when we were down – he makes that big play. That’s the type of person he is, and that’s the type of player he is, as well.”

This rookie class is the latest influx of quarterback talent in the NFL. The five quarterbacks drafted in the first round are the most since 1999.

Jackson and Mayfield have been the best in this group, besting the likes of Sam Darnold, Allen and Josh Rosen, and now they face off in one of the more important games of the final weekend of the regular season. Jackson is looking to lead Baltimore to its first division title in six years, and Mayfield is attempting to lift Cleveland to its first winning regular season in 11 years.

Ravens safety Eric Weddle wouldn’t be surprised to see more rookie quarterbacks squaring off in these critical games going forward.

“I think the philosophy and the game is changing that you’re going to see more young quarterbacks have success early, taking the dynamics of what they do in college and adapt that to the system they’re running in the NFL,” Weddle said. “Baker was talented in college. You knew once he got in there and made some plays, he was going to do well. Lamar is getting his opportunity, and each week he’s showing what he’s all about.”

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake couldn’t help but chuckle when asked about the prospect of change within the coaching staff after another disappointing season. Change was the topic on everyone’s mind following the Dolphins’ 17-7 loss to the Jaguars.

“I assume every week you’re playing for your job. I’m assuming every week the coaches is coaching for his job,” Wake said. “It’s an audition. It’s a league with a short memory, what have you done for me lately.”

Sunday’s audition was a bust, and coach Adam Gase admitted as much, calling his offense “terrible,” “awful” and “brutal to watch.” Lately, Dolphins coaches and players shouldn’t be happy with what they’ve put out there to be judged. But truth be told, Wake is probably more worried about his own future than that of Dolphins coaches or front-office members. He isn’t alone.

Wake, an unrestricted free agent this offseason, spoke Friday about his Miami future. He has spent all 10 years of his NFL career in a Dolphins uniform, but when asked about playing in another jersey next season, he said, “Ideally no,” but, “If it makes sense, I’ll do it.”

Dark clouds loom over the Dolphins as 2018 comes to a close. Nobody should feel comfortable after the Dolphins find themselves in mediocrity again, and the looming offseason will provide answers about who stays and who goes.

Adam Gase called his offense “brutal to watch” on Sunday. It’s up in the air if Gase will be around to watch it in 2019. Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports
As Dolphins owner Stephen Ross walked across the locker room with his head down about 30 minutes after the game ended, a few Dolphins players watched him stroll from one side of the room to a locker room exit door on the other side. They know Ross holds the keys to the future of many people, starting with those in the front office, down to the coaches and several key players.

“I don’t need to lobby for my job,” Gase said. “If (Ross) says there’s an issue, I’ll know.”

Gase said they didn’t overestimate the talent on the team. Instead, he cited injuries to key players that helped knock the season off track. “We started the year 3-0 for a reason,” he said.

Gase on a plan for fixing this: “We’ve been talking about it for three years. It is what it is. We had a lot of good things going on, and we lost some players. It happens. It’s the NFL.” He said it’s not up to him if he gets a fourth season.

Many Las Vegas books gave the Dolphins an over/under of 6.5 wins to start the season — and whether the Dolphins finish 7-9 with a loss at Buffalo next Sunday or 8-8 with a win, they will still slightly exceed that expectation. But there’s no moral-victory feeling for a Dolphins team that lacks the long-term promise that other non-playoff teams have heading into the offseason.

“It’s going to be an interesting next week or two,” one Dolphins player said after the game. “We’re all are waiting to see what happens.”

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Questions at quarterback and defensive line scream out, and Miami also has several veterans older than 30 holding down key positions. Thirteen players landed on injured reserve — many of them being key offensive contributors. There are obvious holes to fill this offseason but not everyone believes that lack of talent is the biggest problem.

“There is a lot of talent in this locker room. There are a lot of good players — really good players — on all three phases of the ball,” cornerback Bobby McCain said. “Us putting it together as a team, as a unit, that’s what we have to do. All year we haven’t played collective football. … There’s too many ups and downs.”

Failing to eclipse 200 yards five times this season — and in three of their past four games — is a problem that can’t be ignored. Ranking in the bottom 10 offensively and defensively can’t be ignored. The Dolphins have just as many or more roster questions now than when the season began. That can’t be ignored.

Ultimately, Ross will have to decide who is at fault as to why his team won’t be playing in January. He probably will find it’s a mixture of coaching, players and personnel decisions. Then it will be on him to make a choice on what to do.

“It’s a Dolphins issue. Can’t really separate the two,” Wake said. “It’s not like the players can go to playoffs and coaches stay or vice versa. It’s either all or nothing. We work together cohesively as a unit and we share failures; we share successes. It’s on everybody.”

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers insist they don’t have a quarterback controversy.

Jameis Winston practiced Wednesday for the first time since serving a three-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, returning to a team that’s ridden Ryan Fitzpatrick’s arm to a surprising 2-1 start.

“I’m excited to be back,” a beaming Winston said. “I’m so happy we had some success. … We’ve got to keep it up.”

Fitzpatrick, a 35-year-old journeyman who’s played for seven teams over 14 seasons, has thrown for 1,230 yards and 11 touchdowns while becoming the first player in league history to top 400 yards passing in three consecutive games.

“When a guy throws for 400 yards three games in a row, you gotta love that,” Winston said, adding that he’s happy for Fitzpatrick, as well as proud of the entire team for how it performed in his absence.

“Me being back, nothing’s changing. I’m happy that when we have a win, I can dap guys up and celebrate with them,” he added. “That’s the part you miss, that team bonding.”

Winston was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft and started 45 of 48 games the past three seasons.

Coach Dirk Koetter remained mum on who will start Sunday’s game at Chicago.

He has informed both Winston and Fitzpatrick, but has no intentions of letting the Bears know what’s planned.

Winston took a stab at diffusing the conversation before retreating.

“I’m here to assist the best way I possibly can,” the fourth-year pro when asked what his reaction be to not being the starter against the Bears. “My passion for this team, my love for this team goes beyond whether I’m out there throwing the football for this team or not.”

Without hesitation, he quickly added: “It’s my first day back. Let me enjoy that before I (answer) any more questions about that.”

Fitzpatrick is expected to meet with the media on Thursday.

“It’s about the team’s success. I’m not a selfish player, it’s about our team,” Winston said. “We’re out here doing big things, and we’ve got to continue doing that.”

The 2013 Heisman Trophy winner practiced with the Bucs for the first time since the preseason. He was forbidden to be at the team’s training facility or have contact with coaches of teammates during the suspension.

Tuesday was the first day Winston was allowed to get back to work. He arrived at the complex at about 5:30 a.m., even though it was an off day for teammates following Monday night’s 30-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Winston recruited a couple of coaches and more than 20 players, including former NFL receiver Louis Murphy, to join him for workouts designed to help the quarterback remain sharp and in condition during the layoff.

“I did my best impersonation of what it would be like being here,” Winston said. “I got guys from the Orlando area, Fort Lauderdale, Lakeland. … We just went to work. I didn’t want the guys in this building to be working hard and I wasn’t out there doing my thing.”

Teammates were excited to have Winston back in the locker room and on the practice field. They insist they won’t take sides in the quarterback situation, stressing that they’re confident they can with Winston or Fitzpatrick.

“Jameis handled it like a pro. What else would you expect?” Koetter said.

“He came back prepared. That’s no surprise,” Koetter added. “It was great to have him back. Jameis is a favourite of everyone around here, so great to have his energy back in the building, his smile back in the building. I know he’s happy to be here. We’re happy to have him.”

___

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CLEVELAND — The beer-fueled bash spilled into the streets around FirstEnergy Stadium as delirious Browns fans walked — some staggered — while chanting for their new hero, the streak buster.

“Ba-ker May-field,” they screamed.

They’ve named their new starting quarterback. Coach Hue Jackson isn’t quite there yet.

Jackson said he isn’t ready to “officially” identify his starter for next week’s game in Oakland, but all signs point to Mayfield taking over in Cleveland following his dazzling NFL debut on Thursday night.

The No. 1 pick in this year’s draft replaced concussed starter Tyrod Taylor late in the first half and led the Browns (1-1-1) on four scoring drives as they erased a two-touchdown deficit to beat the New York Jets 21-17 and end Cleveland’s 19-game winless streak — the NFL’s second longest since 1970.

Jackson seems to only be delaying the inevitable: Mayfield’s the guy.

And if Jackson doesn’t’ pick the celebrated and uber-confident rookie, he won’t have to jump in Lake Erie again. Browns fans will throw him in. This one’s a no-brainer.

Jackson, who gave his players the weekend off, wants to watch more tape and speak with his staff and general manager John Dorsey before making a decision that Mayfield has already made for him.

Although Jackson wouldn’t publicly say Mayfield is his new starter, he gave strong indication he’s leaning that way by telling reporters on a conference call, “I think that you guys all feel good about where things are headed.”

It’s Baker time.

Out of respect for Taylor, who is in concussion protocol with his third head injury in 13 months, Jackson wants to tell his two quarterbacks his decision in person on Monday before sharing it with the world.

Cleveland’s plan was to bring Mayfield along slowly and groom him under Taylor, who guided Buffalo to the playoffs last season. But Taylor’s injury along with his struggles in three starts has altered the Browns’ strategy.

Taylor has completed 41 of 84 passes for 462 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, adding 125 yards rushing on 16 carries.

But even before he was knocked from Thursday’s game, Cleveland’s offence was going nowhere as Taylor was 4 of 14 for 19 yards and was sacked three times. Jackson sidestepped addressing whether he was going to pull Taylor at halftime, but it had to be running through his mind because anyone watching the game was thinking the same thing.

Mayfield’s first regular-season game as a pro couldn’t have gone much better. He completed 17 of 23 passes for 201 yards and was sacked once in just a little more than one half. His stats could have been more impressive if not for a drop by sure-handed receiver Jarvis Landry, and rookie Antonio Callaway letting a long throw down the sideline slip through his hands.

“He made some tremendous throws,” Jackson said. “Obviously, he was able to move the team. Played with some rhythm. Got the ball into the playmakers’ hands and gave them chances to make plays. There are some things that he has to clean up, obviously. We can’t have the ball out on the ground. There are some progression things that we will work through.

“Overall for his first game out under the lights in that environment in that situation, he handled all of that extremely well and played well.”

Most impressively, Mayfield did it on a short work week and without taking any snaps in practice with Cleveland’s first-team offence. In fact, the 2-point conversion try he caught in the third quarter came on the first time he had ever run the play.

But just as he did while winning the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma, Mayfield elevated everyone around him, and in turn electrified 60,000 fans and a national TV audience.

Mayfield took it all in stride, displaying humility that some wondered if he had after some questionable on-field antics while he starred for the Sooners. This game ranked with any of his wins.

“This one is definitely up there, being the first NFL game that I have played in,” he said. “First regular-season one that actually counts. It is definitely up there for me. I have had some great memories, but I am just getting started.”

NOTES: Other than Taylor, LB James Burgess (knee) was the only other notable injury against the Jets. Burgess started for LB Christian Kirksey, who missed his second straight game with an ankle injury. … Jackson said he’s not worried about giving his players so much freedom over the weekend. “We can’t follow them around. We can’t baby them,” he said. “At the same time, we know who the guys are who we have to have an idea of where they are and what they have been doing. They have been good about letting us know, and we will definitely stay in contact with the majority of the guys.”

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EAGAN, Minn. — With his first real game for the Minnesota Vikings in the books , Kirk Cousins has another initiation coming this weekend: a visit to Lambeau Field.

Cousins and the Vikings play in Green Bay on Sunday, an earlier than usual contest for control of the NFC North. The only other times since 2000 that the Vikings have faced the Packers on the road in September were the season openers in 2003 and 2008.

For Cousins, well, talk about diving right in.

“It’s a great opportunity to join this rivalry and hopefully put my best foot forward and get off to a great start,” said Cousins, who grew up in the Chicago area and then western Michigan and, thus, has been immersed in one of the NFL’s most storied divisions his whole life as a football follower.

This will be his first playing experience at Green Bay, too. When Washington travelled there in 2013, he was the backup to Robert Griffin III. Now he’ll be the fifth Vikings quarterback to start in the last five visits to Lambeau Field.

“You realize how important it is for this organization, for our fans,” Cousins said Wednesday.

Cousins passed for 244 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover in a smooth Minnesota debut, a 24-16 victory over San Francisco. The downside? All seven of his pass attempts in the fourth quarter, including one throwaway on the final play, were incomplete. That’s uncharacteristic for a quarterback who’s had a strong track record of success late in games, since he became a full-time starter in 2015. He directed two fourth-quarter comeback victories that year, four in 2016 and one in 2017.

“Some quarterbacks have a reputation of doing them,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “Some quarterbacks make it so that they don’t really have to do it in the fourth quarter, too. A lot of times it’s opportunities. A lot of times it’s the team around you. There are so many variables.”

All eyes will be on Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, whose status for Sunday will be a mystery until pregame warmups . So Cousins could fly a little lower on the radar for this one than his normal front-and-centre situation after signing his $84 million, fully guaranteed contract with the Vikings this year. The circumstances were different, but Cousins already has two strong performances against the Packers on his resume.

Though Washington lost that playoff game at home on Jan. 10, 2016, Cousins completed 29 of 46 passes for 329 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. The following season when Green Bay returned to FedEx Field, Cousins went 21 for 30 for 375 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a victory.

“I’ve taken a lot of steps as a player and in my confidence,” Cousins said, reflecting on his progress since those matchups. “So I think that’s true of all of us in the league. The longer we play, the more we’re out there, the more we’re able to be in the fire and playing through mistakes and learning, it helps us be that much better the next time we go out.”

The Vikings are pleased to be the beneficiaries.

“The last two years, we’ve had a new quarterback by Week 2,” tight end Kyle Rudolphsaid. “The last few years we’ve been in a situation with a new quarterback that we didn’t get many reps with during the off-season. It is nice to be out there with a guy we’ve been working with since the middle of April and build a rapport with.”

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A look at what’s happening around the New York Jets:

We’ve been hyping this draft class for 12 months, especially the quarterbacks — and now we’re only four days away from the most anticipated draft in recent memory. So here you go, mini-mock 2.0.

1. Browns: Sam Darnold, QB, USC. I have to admit, I’m less confident than last week because the drumbeat for Josh Allen is getting louder, but Darnold is the safer choice. Safe should appeal to the Browns, considering how many quarterback picks they’ve screwed up.

2. Giants: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State. New general manager Dave Gettleman said Barkley “is one of those guys my mother could’ve scouted. She could’ve figured that one out.” (Side note: In 1990, Jets GM Dick Steinberg made a similar comment about another Penn State runner, Blair Thomas, who never lived up to expectations.) If Darnold is available, the Giants could go quarterback.

3. Jets (via Colts): Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma. With a choice between Mayfield, Allen and Josh Rosen, the Jets opt for the short guy with the big game and big personality. Risky? Yes, but there are flaws in each of the top quarterbacks. The Jets appear to prefer Mayfield and Rosen over Allen, whose accuracy is a concern. It’s a tough call between Mayfield and Rosen. Each has support within the organization.

2018 NFL DRAFT
When: April 26-28
Where: Arlington, Texas
NFL draft coverage » | Full order: 1-256 »

•Insider Kiper vs. McShay three-round mock »
•Insider Kiper’s ‘Grade: A’ mock » Favorite guys »
•Insider McShay’s ‘Grade: A’ mock » Tier rankings»
•Insider McShay’s top five needs for every team »
•Insider Prospects every team should target »
•Insider Football Outsiders’ draft guides »
•Insider Dueling two-round mock drafts »
• Barnwell’s 2018 All-Trades Mock Draft »
• How ’18 QBs grade vs. first-rounders »
• How Barkley grades vs. elite running backs »
•Insider Pos. projections: QBs » WRs » RBs » DEs »

4. Browns (via Texans): Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State. You can bet the Browns will get some tempting trade offers for this pick, but Chubb is the best defensive player in the class and the idea of him and Myles Garrett as bookend pass-rushers is too good to pass up.

5. Bills (via Broncos): Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming. Trade! Desperate for quarterback help, the Bills jump up seven spots to grab the strongest arm in the draft — and maybe the last 10 drafts.

6. Colts (via Jets): Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame. The Colts need help everywhere, but protecting Andrew Luck — he of the surgically repaired shoulder — is priority No. 1.

7. Dolphins (via Bucs): Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA. Trade! The Dolphins could sit at No. 11 and hope Rosen falls to them, but VP Mike Tannenbaum isn’t one to sit around and wait. The Dolphins, looking for an heir apparent to Ryan Tannehill, have done a lot of work on the top quarterbacks.

8. Bears: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia. The Chicago defense allowed only 17 touchdowns last season, tied for second-fewest in the league. (Bet you didn’t know that.) Smith will make them even better.

9. 49ers: Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State. Ward is the top corner in the class and the Niners, who should be a fun team to watch in 2018, need someone to play opposite Richard Sherman.

10. Raiders: Vita Vea, DT, Washington. Jon Gruden invokes the “Planet” theory for his first draft pick. As former Giants GM George Young declared many years ago, there are only so many people walking the planet with the size and athleticism to play on the offensive and defensive line. The 347-pound Vea is one of those guys.

So there you have it. On Monday, general manager Mike Maccagnan will hold his pre-draft sitdown with reporters. There is no chance — zero — he will tip his hand. The buzz around the league points to Mayfield. In four days, we’ll see if it was just an elaborate smokescreen.

2. Mixed opinions on QBs: This group probably won’t match the celebrated Class of ’83 in terms of overall impact, but it could be the most polarizing class in history. Opinions on the top four vary widely. This is truly a “beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder” decision for the quarterback-needy teams.

Some insiders believe the Jets have narrowed their choices to Mayfield and Rosen, assuming Darnold is off the board. That, according to NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, isn’t a great decision to have.

“My two top quarterbacks are Darnold and Allen,” he said. “If I’m the Jets, I’m struggling telling you I would take Mayfield or Rosen, in all honesty. I don’t have either of them rated that highly.”

Elaborating, Mayock said, “From a Jets perspective, will they embrace the swagger of Mayfield, which is pretty significant? And he might play really well if he’s successful on Broadway. Rosen, for me, it’s more the durability issue than anything else.”

Other talent evaluators prefer Mayfield and Rosen over Allen, who could be the No. 1 pick. That’s what makes this draft so fascinating.

3. Leo’s contract: As expected, the Jets have exercised Leonard Williams’ fifth-year option for 2019, but it’s not clear yet if he will be designated a defensive end or defensive tackle because he moved around the line. There’s a fairly significant difference. By rule, his 2019 salary will be the average of the 10 highest-paid players at his position — $14.2 million for an end, $11.4 million as a tackle.

In situations like this, the league reviews every snap from last season and makes a determination. The expectation is that Williams will be considered a defensive end. The Jets list him as “DL,” although they typically nominate him as an end for the Pro Bowl. Per ESPN Stats & Information, he lined up mainly as an interior lineman, but there’s some subjectivity involved because of different fronts.

The whole thing could be moot if they sign him to an extension before 2019, which is a possibility. Williams is due to make $2.975 million this season.

4. Three’s a charm? With the No. 3 pick, the Jets are guaranteed to get an absolute stud, right? Well, there’s no such thing as a guarantee in the draft, but they’re in a potential sweet spot. Since 2000, the No. 3 pick has produced three future Hall of Famers — Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Joe Thomas.

As far as the Jets are concerned, it’s all about the quarterbacks. In that case, the picks have been all over the map: Very good (Matt Ryan), average (Blake Bortles) and poor (Vince Young and Joey Harrington). Akili Smith, drafted in 1999, was a total bust.

5. Closer look at schedule: One of the hidden aspects to the regular-season schedule is the number rest days between games. This is especially important to coaches and players. In the Jets’ case, it’s a split — three games in which they will have more rest than the opponent and three games in which they will have less rest.

The Jets will have the advantage against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Denver Broncos and Tennessee Titans. They face the Jaguars after a mini bye (Thursday night game), which should help against a tough opponent.

On the flip side, the Jets will be at a disadvantage against the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins (both games). That it happens twice against a divisional opponent can’t thrill the Jets. In Week 2, they will be coming off a Monday night road game. In Week 9, the Jets will have regular rest, but the Dolphins will be playing after a mini bye.

The Jets’ Week 12 meeting against the New England Patriots should be interesting, as both teams will be playing after full bye weeks. It’s worth noting that Bill Belichick is 13-5 in games after the bye. So there’s that.
6. Centers of attention: Nick Mangold’s expected retirement served as another reminder that the Jets have been blessed with a tremendous run at the center position. They’ve had some cracks here and there, but they’ve basically had only five centers since Super Bowl III — John Schmitt (1969-1973), Joe Fields (1976-1987), Jim Sweeney (1988-1994), Kevin Mawae (1998-2005) and Mangold (2006-2016).

Now if they could only pick quarterbacks like that.

7. Broadway Joe gives back: They get overshadowed by his athletic achievements and celebrity, but Joe Namath’s philanthropic efforts deserve attention. In 2017, he started the Joe Namath Foundation, which raises money for children’s charities, neurological research and educational opportunities.

“Through the years I’ve grown to understand how important it is for all of us to try to lend some time to the folks who are less fortunate,” Namath told me during an interview the other day.

Kudos to old No. 12.