Sunday, November 11, 2018

A memorable given Sunday

 Remember that old football expression regarding the improbability on the outcome of some games in the National Football League?

No, not the one that appeared here just the other day with respect to playing games on the schedule one at a time when the next opponent is far superior to yours and no one expects an upset.

The one I’m referring to appeared here about a week ago in reference to the Browns’ meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs. Recall this one: “On any given Sunday, any team in the National Football League can beat any other team.”

Well Sunday Nov. 11, 2018 down by the lakefront in downtown Cleveland was such a Sunday.

In a didn’t-seen-that-one-coming and absolutely stunning performance by the Browns, they didn’t just beat the Atlanta Falcons, 28-16; they literally outplayed them in every phase of the game.

This was one of those games you watch, whether in person or on television, and your eyes are telling you “this is not really happening,” given the sad history of this club since 1999. The eye-blinking disbelief makes it appear as though everything unfolding before you is surreal.

The Browns, in the throes of a four-game losing streak, during which they have looked awful, are beating up a team on a three-game winning streak and looking a lot lately like the powerful Chiefs.

The offense was sensational throughout most of the afternoon, looking nothing like the offense that has been terrible for the last month.  New offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens’ approach is much more creative than his predecessor’s.

The defense bent somewhat, but did not break. It swarmed around Falcons ball carriers, the tackling was crisp and the quickness that was missing in the last month reappeared with the return to health of cornerback Denzel Ward, safety Damarious Randall and middle linebacker Joe Schobert.

Even the special teams looked good. Not because of what they did, but because of what they didn’t do: Make mistakes.

Everything clicked on offense. The ground game, a.k.a. Nick Chubb, ran relentlessly behind an offensive line looking for retribution after looking extremely mediocre during the losing streak.

Rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield was sensational, masterfully guiding his almost mistake-free offense on touchdown drives on four of five possessions at one point as the Browns opened up a 28-10 lead with 8:45 left in the third quarter.

He completed his first 13 passes as the Browns led, 14-10, at the half, and wound up 17 of 20 for 216 yards with scoring passes to Rashard Higgins (28 yards), Chubb (13 yards) and Duke Johnson Jr. (11 yards). He added another season first: A sackless afternoon.

The Higgins touchdown produced a first in a season when firsts have been hard to come by. It was the Browns’ first first-quarter touchdown after 145 minutes and 24 seconds of abject futility.

Chubb, who has all but made Browns fans forget Carlos Hyde started out the season as the lead running back, ran for 176 yards on 20 attempts, planting the exclamation point on the victory with a team record 92-yard touchdown gallop midway through the third quarter.

The run started out innocently on a simple stretch play to the strong side with Chubb cutting back inside behind a block by right tackle Chris Hubbard at about the 15-yard line and finding himself open. He easily dismissed one attempted tackle before turning on his deceivingly swift speed, easily outracing the Falcons to the end zone.

In four starts since Hyde’s departure, Chubb has run for 406 yards and three touchdowns. He added a touchdown through the air when he slipped out of the backfield against the Falcons and gathered in a screen pass en route to the end zone.

The Cleveland possession that sort of tipped off fans that this was going to be a fun afternoon occurred right after the Falcons took their only lead of the afternoon at 10-7 with five minutes left in the second quarter.

The Browns responded with an eight-play, 80-yard scoring drive with Chubb getting six touches along the way for 64 of those yards. It gave the Browns a lead they did not relinquish. It also sent a signal to the Falcons this could be one of those given Sundays.

The defense, meanwhile, was stout, especially when the Falcons threatened the goal line on three occasions. It forced them to run 11 plays inside the Cleveland 5 before they scored their only touchdowns of the game, both on short-area passes.

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan had to throw the ball 52 times against mostly a zone employed by head coach Gregg Williams, who evened his record at 1-1 as interim head coach.

There was no question his team arrived at the ballpark with attitude on both sides of the ball and ready to play a smart brand of football against a hot team. The breaks came their way all afternoon.

For example, Mayfield was stripped of the ball by Falcons defensive end Bruce Irvin after Browns corner T. J. Carrie recovered a Mohamed Sanu fumble in Falcons territory on the third play of the third quarter. But the ball bounced right back to the Cleveland quarterback and he picked up six yards.

Five plays later, Mayfield hooked up with Johnson, who leaked out of the backfield and was wide open at the Atlanta 5 and waltzed into the end zone.

Then later in the quarter, Johnson lost the ball at his 35. It was ruled a fumble and recovery by the Falcons, but was overturned after a replay review. Things like that usually don’t happen to the Browns. It’s normally the other way around.

The offense misfired just twice all day and on both occasions, Kitchens tried to get cute. Cute fails much more often than it succeeds in the NFL.

On the game-opening possession, the Browns faced a third-and-1 at their 44. Mayfield suddenly broke from the formation and walked toward the sideline, his arms akimbo, seemingly not understanding the play. Chubb then took a direct snap and gained nothing. An illegal motion penalty against Mayfield was declined.

That one was harmless. The next gaffe was not.

On the third Cleveland possession, the offense was rolling after a 17-yard Breshad Perriman reception placed the ball at the Falcons’ 34. Everything was going well when Kitchens struck again.

Rookie reserve running back Dontrelle Hilliard took a pitch from Mayfield, who sneaked out of the backfield down the left sideline. Hilliard’s pass floated in his direction came down into the waiting arms of Falcons cornerback Damontae Kazee, who returned it 33 yards to the Cleveland 45.

Those are the kinds of plays that are great if they work, which isn’t very often. If not, it usually becomes a disaster. This disaster was a gift to the Atlanta offense, which capitalized six plays later.

It’s best to tear that play out of the playbook and incinerate it. But it sure did not spoil the afternoon for Browns Nation.

So now the Browns will have two weeks off, courtesy of the bye, to enjoy this one, or more probably just a week before getting ready to see if they can make it two in a row at Cincinnati.

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