Sunday, November 25, 2018

Turning it up a notch or four

The corner has not been turned yet, but it is clearly in sight and coming more and more into focus for fans of Cleveland’s professional football team.

Playing with stunning near perfection for the first 32 minutes of the game on both sides of the football, the Browns Sunday sent a message to the rest of the National Football League with a resounding 35-20 victory over the Bengals in Cincinnati.

The Cleveland Browns are no longer the league’s stepchild; nor are they the league’s rest stop on the schedule; or the league’s pushover when an easy victory is in order.

It was a 35-7 game two minutes into the third quarter after Baker Mayfield tossed his fourth touchdown pass of the afternoon to tight end Darren Fells after the second of two takeaways.

The victory snapped a 25-game road losing streak, which began 1,142 days after the Browns knocked off the Baltimore Ravens in overtime on Oct. 11, 2015. It also smashed to smithereens the Bengals’ seven-game winning streak against Cleveland.

And it marked the first time the Browns have won back-to-back games since consecutive victories against Tampa Bay and Cincinnati Nov. 2 and Nov. 6 in 2014. That season, the Browns stood at 7-4 before losing their final five games,

The offense was spectacular in the first half Sunday, scoring on the first four possessions in precision-like fashion each time against a Cincinnati defense that looked clueless, rather ironic since ex-Browns head coach Hue Jackson supposedly clued the Bengals defense on what to look for from that offense.

If so, he sure gave them bad information. It was the most first-half points the Browns had scored since the old Browns put up 31 in the first half (28 in the second quarter) in a 31-0 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 1, 1991.

Jackson soon discovered this was not the same offense he left when he was cashiered a few weeks back. The players were the same, but their execution was much sharper and the creativity of new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens made a huge difference,

As the Browns piled up the score, CBS-TV cameras occasionally provided Jackson’s rather bemused reaction to what was unfolding. A couple of times he shook his head almost in disbelief that this was the same offense when he was the head man in Cleveland.

Mayfield, whose play suggested he woke up Sunday morning feeling really, really, really, really dangerous, was sensational, spreading the ball around, converting five of six first-half third down opportunities along the way.

Throwing with supreme confidence and unerring accuracy, he completed 17 of his 21 first-half passes for 244 yards and the four scores, many of which were quick developing plays that neutered the Bengals’ pass rush,

He threw for 70 of the 78 yards on the first drive, Nick Chubb scoring from a yard out; 51 of the 56 yards following a Myles Garrett’s block of a field attempt, Antonio Callaway hauling in a 13-yard scoring strike; 81 of the 96 yards on drive #3, tight end David Njoku on the receiving end of 51 of those yards, including the final six following a Damarious Randall pick; and 42 of the 59 yards on #4 with Chubb taking a pass 14 yards for the score.

After his interception, Randall wound up on the Cincinnati sideline and playfully handed the football to his former head coach, who spent most of the afternoon beside or near Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.

All in all, Mayfield needed just 19 minutes and 44 seconds in those four possessions to travel 299 total yards in only 37 plays, or a fraction above eight yards a play against the NFL’s worst defense.

As the score mounted, the shock resonated in the television booth with play-by-play man Kevin Harlan and analyst Rich Gannon having trouble believing what they were witnessing. After all, these were the sad sack Cleveland Browns, the perennial cellar dwellers of the AFC North Division. This was not supposed to be happening.

Once the Browns took the 28-point lead on a Mayfield-to-Darren Fells connection from seven yards after Cincinnati center Billy Price air-mailed a shotgun snap halfway to the Bengals’ goal line two plays into the third quarter, Kitchens dialed it way back in the final 28 minutes.

That, for all practical purposes was it for the Cleveland offense. Britton Colquitt, whose only first-half appearances were to hold for Greg Joseph on extra points, was much busier in the second half with four punts.

It all kind of made it interesting with Mayfield & Co. on cruise control. The rookie quarterback threw the ball only five times in the second half, completing two for 14 yards.

Chubb took over the brunt of the attack  -- if you call 21 plays in five possessions much an attack – with 13 of his 28 carries for 54 of his 84 yards. All Kitchens wanted to do was bleed time off the clock and move the chains. They responded with only 21plays, 66 yards, four first downs (two by penalty) and just 11:08 off the clock.

The Bengals took advantage of the soft coverage and climbed to within 35-20 after rookie Jeff Driskel, who took over at quarterback when Andy Dalton suffered a thumb injury in the scrum trying to flag down the soaring Price snap, threw for one score and plunged a couple of yards for another, climaxing a 94-yard drive..

It gave the Bengals and their booing fans a false sense of security and at the same time caused at least a few members of Browns Nation to think they had seen collapses like this way too often in the last 20 seasons and is this another one of those in progress.

Has it been just about any other team – the Bengals have lost five of their last six games – the final quarter might have been scarier than it seemed until the defense clamped down and forced the Bengals to turn over the football on downs.

Now all the Browns have to do to prove this is not just another tease, another aberration that has plagued this franchise for so long is to go down to Houston next Sunday and prove all over again this is really happening against the AFC South-leading Texans. .

That will be the supreme test to gauge whether that corner is still in the distance or getting closer by the game.

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