Packers edge Browns as Aaron Rodgers, Baker Mayfield provide startling contrast in QB play

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A tale of two quarterbacks was in the Christmas spotlight, as Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, time and again, made big mistakes

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As Aaron Rodgers shows us practically by the week, and Baker Mayfield rarely does, elite quarterback play in the NFL is not just about the precision aerial chunk plays you can regularly make within any game.

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It’s just as much about avoiding killer mistakes.

Which Rodgers did on Saturday at Lambeau Field, as per usual, while Mayfield did not, which his penchant in big games — and that’s largely why Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers beat Mayfield’s Cleveland Browns, 24-22.

Green Bay improved to 12-3, and will enter the last two weeks of the NFL regular season in position to claim the NFC’s lone first-round playoff bye and home-field playoff advantage. The Packers already clinched the NFC North title last week.

Cleveland began the day in last place in the super-tight AFC North division, a half-game behind 7-6-1 Pittsburgh and just one game behind Cincinnati (8-6) and Baltimore (8-6). But the loss dropped the Browns to 7-8, farther behind all three division rivals, and all but ending their hopes of winning the division.

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Mayfield threw four interceptions in under three hours. Rodgers has thrown four interceptions over his past 17 regular-season games, dating back two days short of a full calendar year, to last Dec. 27.

How’s that for a contrast?

Granted, Mayfield’s final interception in the final minute of the first game of the NFL’s Christmas Day doubleheader — just after Cleveland had reached exactly midfield, only 12-15 yards out of potential game-winning field-goal range — should never have stood.

Green Bay’s intercepting cornerback, Rasul Douglas, clearly interfered with intended receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones well before the ball arrived, yanking the jersey of the Cleveland wide receiver so hard it slowed him down a touch, and allowed Douglas to pass by him to intercept.

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But no flag was thrown, to the outrage and disbelief of Peoples-Jones, Mayfield and half of Ohio.

The Packers ran out the final 50 seconds.

Something is truly messed up with Mayfield, or head coach and chief offensive strategist Kevin Stefanski’s offence, or some combination of both. Because, once again, the Browns found great success in rushing the ball — finishing with a whopping 219 yards, 126 by Nick Chubb — but they couldn’t parlay that advantage, as they should, into burning the Packers defence repeatedly through the air.

Many NFL offensive coaches, and many quarterbacks, would just about die to have Cleveland’s robust run game. Yet either Mayfield is incapable of taking said advantage, or Stefanski is unable to call plays that enable Mayfield to do so.

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When he wasn’t being picked off, Mayfield completed 21 of 32 (66%) for 222 yards and two touchdowns. Again, all good on paper.

But Mayfield rightfully should have been picked off at least two other times. When he’s off target, he’s really off target. He misfired on a couple of simple throws that would have kept drives alive.

As analyst and Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said a few times as nicely as he could during the FOX telecast, those are throws Mayfield or any other young passer hoping to cash in big-time, or win big-time games, simply must make.

Meantime, Rodgers is so mind-bogglingly accurate as to almost never put a ball — ever — in position where a defender might even break it up, let alone have time to practically rub his hands with glee in anticipation of an errant ball coming to papa, as Packers defenders could have done a couple times on Mayfield’s misfires.

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Rodgers completed 71% of his 34 throws against the Browns for 202 yards, three first-half touchdowns and, for the 13 th time in his last 14 games, without an interception.

The 38-year-old wasn’t even sacked, even though this albeit temporarily under-manned Browns defence entered the game with the seventh most sacks (37) in the league.

Mayfield, on the other hand, was sacked five times. Killer mistakes, most of them.

Much was made during the telecast of Rodgers breaking Brett Favre’s Packers record for most touchdown passes. Favre’s immediate successor now has thrown 445.

“It’s a lot of touchdowns,” Rodgers told FOX afterward. “I’m very fortunate to have played with the men I’ve played with, and the coaches I’ve been coached by … It’s a longevity record, but it’s one I’m really proud of.”

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He added that by understudying for three long seasons, 2005-07, behind Favre allowed him to “see what greatness was, first-hand.”

FOX cameras showed Rodgers being stepped on twice in the area of his left foot where he has been battling a painful broken baby toe. And it indeed hurt, Rodgers said.

“This one’s the first week when the toe felt really good (before opening kickoff),” he said.

But when Browns pass rusher Myles Garrett inadvertently crunched that foot with his own, “it sent me right back to where it was a few weeks ago,” Rodgers said of the pain and discomfort.

As he finally left the field for Green Bay’s locker room, Rodgers seemed more than usual to soak in the cheers of the tens of thousands who remained afterward, and who’d chanted “MVP! MVP!” during his FOX post-game interview.

“This is what it’s all about — Christmas night at Lambeau,” Rodgers told FOX. “I’m eternally blessed. I have a lot of blessings here in Green Bay. I’m really thankful to be here.”

Sure didn’t sound like Rodgers is in any rush to leave Green Bay, as continues to be widely speculated.

Leaving town this coming off-season ought not be his concern. As, surely, it must be Mayfield’s.

JoKryk@postmedia.com

@JohnKryk

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