Armando Salguero's OutKick NFL Game Of The Week: Can Baker Mayfield Beat Bill Belichick Strategy?

For decades under coach Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots' defense has been a game plan unit, meaning they try to figure out what the opponent does well and then concentrate on taking that way.

The idea is to make opponents win by doing something other than what they're most comfortable doing.

"Look at the great generals," Belichick said Friday. "exploit your strengths and attack weaknesses. That's about as fundamental as it gets. If there's something you do well, you want to try and do it.

"If there's something your opponent is weak at, you want to try to attack it, and if you can match those up then that's a good way of attack."

Yeah, this week is going to be interesting for the Patriots and their grand scheming.

On Sunday, the Patriots host the Browns, and if circumstances were different, that would mean the Patriots would focus on stopping the Cleveland running game -- perhaps by committing extra defenders in the tackle box to stop the run and make the Browns throw.

The problem for Belichick is circumstances are not different. The Browns, you see, will have neither starting running back Nick Chubb, nor backup Demetric Felton because both are on the COVID-19 reserve list after testing positive, and coach Kevin Stefanski said Friday they are out for the game.

And with Kareem Hunt on the injured reserve list with a calf injury, that means the Browns have only one viable running back for the game -- D'Ernest Johnson -- and John Kelly, who also tested positive for COVID-19 as a possible return.

So what does Belichick do? Does he still focus his defense on stopping the Browns' rushing attack, which is the most productive in the NFL?

"I'd definitely say the mindset is they're always a game-plan defense," Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "They're very versatile. They can do a lot of disguising. But the emphasis for them is stop what you're best at. So going into it, we expect them to try and stop the run to be their emphasis.

"We'll see how they handle it, obviously, with the news about our running backs, but we have to be prepared to react and adapt to whatever we're seeing."

Here's the thing: Belichick might still focus on the Browns' running game because that's their identity. That would mean the New England strategy would then be to make Mayfield beat them with his passing.

Dare him to win. Even if Belichick backs off the Browns running game, that will still be a big challenge for Mayfield because suddenly the Patriots will be focused on him as the weapon to stop.

And that's at once an opportunity and a challenge for Mayfield, who is so far authoring a good but not great season.

Some perspective:

Mayfield desperately needs to play well the second half of the season for team and individual reasons.

The Browns this week signed their two starting guards -- Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio -- to significant contract extensions. It was an important long-term commitment to an offense that relies on its running game to be its foundation, so the move was a wise one.

Mayfield, who benefits from the pass protection of the two outstanding guards, approved.

"First of all, I'd like to say congratulations to both of them," Mayfield said. "I already told them that in person but two extremely deserving guys of those extensions. They deserve that. They protect me, they protect all of our guys. They're team-first guys. Joel's obviously been the consistent guy here for a long time, and Wyatt for the past few years, so we're very happy to have them extended."

But the move underlines the fact the offense's starting quarterback, in his fourth season, has not been signed to an extension.

Yes, the Browns committed to a fifth-year option for Mayfield in April. But because salaries typically only rise with time, it's rare a team doesn't rush to extend its young starting quarterback as soon as it determines that quarterback is a keeper.

The Browns have apparently not yet come to that conclusion.

"That changes nothing for me," Mayfield said. "I'm still trying to find a way to win games, and everything else will take care of itself."

That's really the only way Mayfield can look at the situation, even as it becomes more difficult. Because while he hasn't been able to get his extension, the Browns have paid significant money to their two top running backs, Chubb and Hunt, their best pass rusher Myles Garrett, wide receiver Jarvis Landry, tight end Austin Hooper, and four of their offensive linemen.

That doesn't mean the team won't be able to sign Mayfield to an extension. It would be possible.

But the club is suggesting it's content to let all the evidence come in before jumping to a verdict on what that extension number should be.

So the Browns need to see Mayfield play well the second half of 2021 -- starting with this vital game against New England because of its playoff implications -- before paying him the going rate of $40 million per season over, say, a five-year deal.

If Mayfield plays as he did the second half of 2020 -- with 11 TD passes and only 1 interception -- that's going to move the proverbial needle toward solidifying Mayfield's future in Cleveland.

But if Mayfield plays like he did the second half of the 2019 season -- 15 TD passes but also 9 interceptions and 5 games in which he completed less than 60 percent of his passes -- the club won't feel any urgency to commit to a long-term deal.

The nuance here is we're not necessarily talking about the Browns keeping versus discarding Mayfield.

It's more a question of value and each side being comfortable where that value lands. In the current environment, top quarterbacks typically want to be the highest-paid or match the highest-paid at their position when they sign extensions.

Teams, meanwhile, want to avoid being in a position where they pay the QB and then regret it -- as the Eagles did with Carson Wentz and the Rams did with Jared Goff.

We'll see which way Mayfield seems headed, starting with Sunday's game against Bill Belichick's defense.

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero