Finding and turning a corner
Maybe it’s the color rush uniforms.
Then again, maybe it’s the Baker Mayfield Effect.
No. What it really is is a franchise that has struggled to win for so long finally, finally not only discovering a corner to turn, but actually turning it.
It was a franchise that had become the stepchild of the National Football League for the last 19 seasons, losing games that defied belief at an alarming rate.
It was a franchise that had rung up so many disturbingly embarrassing statistics, many of which might never be broken, it has become a national joke for futility.
But all that is seemingly beginning to change. The landscape changed with Sunday’s ultra dramatic 12-9 overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens in a game that had all the drama of a playoff game, Greg Joseph’s 37-yard field goal with no time left the game winner.
It marked the first time the Browns have won consecutive home games – they beat the New York Jets wearing their Brown color rush unis for that nationally televised Thursday night game – since the 2014 season, when they won consecutive games at home against Oakland and Tampa Bay. .
The victory also shattered another of those disturbingly embarrassing stats. It’s the first time the Browns have won a game on Sunday since knocking off the San Francisco 49ers, 10-3 at home, on Sunday Dec. 13 in 2015. That’s 35 games ago, another dubious NFL record.
It was also the club’s first victory against a division rival since beating the Ravens in overtime in October 2015, a record 19 division games ago.
It brought their season record to 2-2-1, the first time they have been at or above .500 since starting the 2014 season at 7-4 before dropping the final five games under coach Mike Pettine. And they have been competitive in all five games this season.
This one dripped with drama from the beginning when both teams, the former Cleveland Browns against the newer version, slugged it out for the better part of the first 60 minutes.
Neither team had any large degree of momentum as the defenses took front and center and came up with big play after big play on both sides.
The Browns, playing their third overtime game this season, scored the only touchdown of the game when Mayfield hooked up with wide receiver Rashard Higgins on a perfectly executed 19-yard touchdown throw on a post pattern in the final minute of the first half,
Joseph, whose game winner barely knuckled over the crossbar, doinked his conversion attempt off the right upright after that touchdown or else the Browns most likely would have won in regulation
Even though his final boot qualifies as one of the ugliest-looking game winners in NFL history, it must have looked absolutely gorgeous to everyone in Browns Nation as the three points were posted on the scoreboard.
The teams were headed for the first 9-9 deadlock in NFL history as the respective defenses played one-upmanship throughout, almost like a pitchers’ battle in baseball.
Browns coach Hue Jackson, perhaps tired of playing conservative football that yields no rewarding results and corresponding frustration, uncharacteristically, gambled on the second series of overtime from the Baltimore 39 on a fourth-and-5, but Mayfield failed to connect with Jarvis Landry.
But the defense, which played well most of the afternoon (not factoring in the sometimes shoddy tackling), responded with a three-and-out, giving Mayfield one more shot with 2:57 left.
And that when the Mayfield Effect kicked in, but only after an almost disastrous start to what turned out to be the deciding drive. The first play, a pitch toss from Mayfield to Duke Johnson Jr. to wide receiver Rod Streater on a reverse never had a chance to succeed.
The Ravens sniffed it out and snuffed it out as Streater lost 11 yards back to the Cleveland 5. Enough of the stupid gadget plays, especially so close to your goal line. And that’s when Mayfield magic took center stage.
As is sometimes the case in games like these, unlikely heroes pop out of the huddle and make big plays. After Mayfield scrambled for 13 of the 21 yards needed for a first down as the clock was winding down, such a hero emerged.
Rookie wide receiver Derrick Willies, in the game after a knee injury halted Higgins’ afternoon, gathered in a short Mayfield pass and not only made the first down, he rambled 39 yards to the Ravens’ 43 with 1:59 left as Browns fans, especially those whose hearts were still operating relatively normally, sensed something different was about to happen.
The Cleveland running game, which has surprisingly sparkled this season, staggered all afternoon despite Carlos Hyde’s lunchpail-like 63 of the hardest yards he will ever gain, suddenly came alive with the severely underused Johnson in the feature role.
Three straight runs behind right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Chris Hubbard with some help from tight end Darren Fells produced 24 yards, placing the football at the Baltimore 19.
That brought out Joseph, who had badly missed a desperation 55-yard field goal in the waning seconds of regulation after Justin Tucker’s third field goal had tied the game at 9-9 with 52 seconds left in regulation. The kick had the distance, but drifted left as soon as it left his foot.
It was an afternoon of missed opportunities for both teams, justifying the notion that there is such a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL.
The Ravens, for example, threatened to go up 10-0 early in the second quarter, but Myles Garrett deflected a Joe Flacco pass intended for tight end Nick Boyle in the end zone on second and goal from the Cleveland 1 and rookie Denzel Ward intercepted it.
Ward, who blocked a 48-yard field goal attempt by Tucker on the final play of the first half, neutralized speedy Ravens wide receiver John Brown, who was targeted 14 times by Flacco but caught only four passes and was a non-factor.
The Browns collected two more takeaways – that’s 15 in five games – but converted them into only three points. Failure to capitalize on turnovers is one of the biggest problems for this offense, which has scored only 24 points off them.
Mayfield survived a pick in Cleveland on the Browns’ first possession, leading to the first of Tucker’s field goals. He completed 25 of his 43 passes for 342 yards, throwing to 10 different receivers, but was sacked five times by a swarming Baltimore pass rush that pinned him in the pocket
But it was his coolness under fire that stood out. He was, at least seemingly, calm and poised as he directed his team toward the eventual happy ending when all looked lost on that gadget play.
So maybe it wasn’t the color rush uniforms. Nor the Mayfield Effect.
Maybe it was the natural maturation of a franchise that is starting to send signals all around the NFL that the relationship of Cleveland and embarrassingly bad football has ended.--> -->