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Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns

CLEVELAND (AP) — Loose with the football, DeShone Kizer held onto his starting job.

Cleveland’s rookie quarterback, who upped his NFL-leading interception total to 19 with two more picks Sunday, will start this week when the winless Browns play in Chicago.

“It is still DeShone,” coach Hue Jackson said Monday.

Following Sunday’s 27-10 loss to Baltimore, Jackson raised the possibility of a change at quarterback after Kizer had three more turnovers and appeared to take the loss — Cleveland’s 14th straight — particularly hard.

However, Jackson said he feels Kizer is mentally and physically prepared to continue a season that has been brutally tough on the league’s youngest quarterback.

“If he wasn’t up to the challenge, then if I needed to make a change, then I would,” Jackson said. “I think he is up to the challenge. He has some improving to do. He has some work to do this week to continue to get better, but he is going to start at quarterback for us.”

The 21-year-old Kizer has been wildly inconsistent for the Browns (0-14), who haven’t surrounded him with enough talent and yet are trying to decide if he can be their long-term QB. From week to week, Kizer’s performances have ranged from solid to sorry,

“I hate to say it this way but it is true — we have seen a pendulum swing like this with DeShone,” Jackson said. “This week it did not go so well. The next week he plays well. This week he does not go as well. The next week he plays well. Hopefully, that cycle holds true and this week he comes back, gets himself ready and he goes out there and plays his tail off.

“That is the way I see it and I still think with him playing with his teammates that he gives us the best opportunity to get us a victory.”

The Browns have two weeks to avoid becoming the second team to go 0-16, and they believe Kizer gives them the best chance to get a win despite his turnover troubles.

Against the Ravens, Kizer forced one pass into triple coverage in Baltimore’s end zone and badly overthrew a receiver for another pick. He finished 20 of 37 for 146 yards and got sacked twice, fumbling on a strip that was recovered by the Ravens for a touchdown.

But despite the rough outing, Jackson feels the only way for Kizer to improve is to keep playing him. Jackson has tried to modify his game plan to suit Kizer, but it’s on his young QB to value the ball.

“He has to find the small wins for himself as he is in those situations and playing,” Jackson said. “He has to do a better job of taking care of the ball, and he has to do a better job of understanding the situation as it happens.”

Kizer’s body language wasn’t good after the game, prompting Jackson to entertain a switch. It’s understandable he would be dejected, but several of his teammates feel Kizer has grown despite the lumps he’s taken.

“DeShone, being a young guy, a rookie coming in, has handled this as well as he can,” center JC Tretter said. “It has obviously been a long year. I applaud him and his ability to come in each and every day looking to get better and looking to develop and understand more of the offense and understand more looks. In the building, we see the progress of him recognizing defenses, picking up blitzes and everything like that.

“He is doing everything you ask for him to. Obviously, the results haven’t been there as a team, but I think DeShone, his attitude and the way he prepares is exactly what you look for.”

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Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan

ATLANTA — Every week, Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn emphasizes the importance of winning on third down and in the red zone. Sunday’s loss showed exactly why Quinn harps on it all the time.

The Falcons felt good about themselves entering the matchup with the Minnesota Vikings as they had the league’s top third-down offense, converting 48.1 percent of those opportunities. Plus, the defense made some big stops in last week’s win over Tampa Bay.

But it all went for naught, as third-down struggles on both sides and settling for field goals on offense eventually led to the Falcons’ demise in a 14-9 loss.

Not only did the Falcons’ three-game winning streak come to an end, but now the playoff picture becomes a little fuzzier. The Falcons are 7-5 and among the group of teams trying to hold on to a wild-card spot right next to the Seattle Seahawks, whom they beat in Week 11. It won’t be easy for the Falcons to secure a postseason berth with the league’s toughest schedule to finish, which includes two games against the rival New Orleans Saints and a rematch with a defense just as tough and physical as the Vikings’ in the Carolina Panthers.

In order to make a playoff push, the Falcons can’t fall back on bad habits like they did against the Vikings. They were 1-for-10 on third down a week after going 11-of-14 against the Buccaneers. Some of the seven penalties the Falcons picked up contributed to their third-down woes.

“I thought we had too many third-and-7s,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “I think one of the points of emphasis for us during the week was to try and be efficient on first and second down. We didn’t do a good job of that.

“They are a very good defense. We knew it was going to be tough sledding at times, but we’ve got to be more productive and put ourselves in better positions. When we get our chances on third downs, we’ve got to make some plays.”

The Falcons were 0-for-1 in the red zone and settled for three Matt Bryant field goals for the entire day — and Bryant even missed a key 45-yarder late. The players totally backed Quinn’s decision to go with that field goal with 5 minutes, 4 seconds remaining and the Falcons facing fourth-and-4 from the Vikings’ 27 rather than gamble and go for it. Besides, they needed as many points as possible with touchdowns hard to come by against a stingy Vikings defense.

The only other time the Falcons scored in single digits this season was a 23-7 loss to the New England Patriots in Week 7.

“We just have to get back in rhythm,” Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones said. “Today, we were just missing offensively. … From our standpoint, we’re way better than nine points. We just have to get it fixed.”

Defensively, the Falcons missed tackles and let the Vikings go over 100 yards rushing. The defense allowed NFC Offensive Player of the Month Case Keenum to complete 25 of 30 passes for 227 yards with two touchdowns and a 120.4 passer rating. They allowed the Vikings to convert 6 of 12 third downs, including a crucial third-and-4 in the late stages that resulted in Keenum’s 22-yard connection with Adam Thielen, a conversion that all but sealed the victory. Allowing the Vikings to convert those third downs was a reason Minnesota had the ball almost 10 minutes longer.

“That ain’t good at all,” Falcons defensive back Ricardo Allen said of the Vikings converting 50 percent on third down. “That kept a lot of their drives going. We just have to get off the field on third down.

“They didn’t really throw any challenging balls. [Keenum] took what we gave him. It wasn’t like they were out there dicing us up or anything. Whatever we gave them, they took. And if they had to punt the ball, they punted the ball.”

Back on offense, Ryan couldn’t find that connection with Jones, who had just two catches for 24 yards on six targets while matched up a lot against Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Devonta Freeman rushed for 74 yards on 12 carries in his return from a concussion, which is a positive sign for the Falcons for the remainder of the season. But it didn’t help the cause Sunday.

The Falcons’ next challenge is a quick turnaround, with not much time to prepare for Thursday night’s NFC South showdown with the rival and division-leading Saints. One aspect the Falcons do have in their favor is the game being at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium as the final part of a three-game homestand.

“It’s already preparation for Thursday night,” Allen said. “We’ve got to go get it.”