A bright future beckons
Before the Browns closed out the 2018 season with the Baltimore Ravens Sunday, quarterback Baker Mayfield summed up the situation perfectly. “They are playing for a playoff spot and we are playing to prove who we are,” the rookie said.
After Sunday’s dramatic, pulse-pounding 26-24 loss in easily the best and most exciting game of their season, there is no question whatsoever who the Browns are. They proved to themselves – and the rest of the National Football League – that they are back in a big way.
They have or will soon become the off-season favorites to seriously challenge for the AFC North championship next season. At no point did it seem they were out of this one in a game that meant a whole lot more to the Ravens.
They proved it behind the wizardry of Mayfield, with a second half that scared the daylights out of the Ravens, making a game of it down the stretch with an excellent chance to ruin the Ravens’ playoffs hopes for the second year in a row.
This is a one tough football team.
Yes, they lost on the scoreboard, but won in many other ways. They no longer are the league’s doormat, the easy victory, the pushover. They do not scare easily. Those days are history.
They came away knowing, not hoping or thinking, knowing the light at the end of the tunnel now is not the oncoming train. It is the light that strongly indicates those awful years of abysmal football in Cleveland are over.
Winning football is back in Cleveland.
Based on what fans have witnessed the last half of the season, this team now has the ability and ammunition to inflict a lot of damage in the future, especially when they own the football. At no time did they think they were out of this game.
A lot of that is centered on Mayfield, who threw scoring passes to Breshad Perriman, Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway, giving him an NFL rookie record 27 touchdown passes this season in only 13 starts.
It more than proves the Browns, who wound up the season 7-8-1, are no longer out of contention in a game as long as Mayfield is vertical and healthy. He put on a dazzling display, especially in the second half, that silenced an otherwise boisterous Baltimore crowd.
After getting walloped physically in the first half in every conceivable way by an explosive Baltimore offense that ran roughshod, the Browns did not do what so many other Browns teams in the last 20 years have done in similar situations. They could have caved, but did not, even though they knew there was no next Sunday.
At no point, either, did Browns Nation think it was over as the Ravens took a 20-7 halftime lead, inflicting tons of damage in the run game, challenging the Cleveland defense to stop them and winning just about every battle behind rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson and an abusive offensive line.
That’s a character thing, a trait this team has displayed in interim coach Gregg Williams eight-game tenure, during which the club won five, clearly in his favor as General Manager John Dorsey launches his search for a new head coach Monday.
The Browns knew going into the game that the Ravens relied on the ground game to guide their offense. And yet they had no answers for Jackson and that ground game, which churned out 179 yards in the opening 30 minutes.
Large holes opened up just about everywhere as Jackson and running backs Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon took turns carving out huge chunks of yardage behind a line that bludgeoned the Cleveland front four.
Jackson scored both Baltimore touchdowns in that half on runs of 25 and eight yards, had a third of 33 yards negated by a holding call and lost a fourth when he coughed up the ball inches short of the goal line. All that in the first half.
It wasn’t until the Browns made second-half adjustments that either shut down and/or narrowed the running lanes for Jackson & Co. that they sensed the momentum was shifting.
Mayfield refused to let his team lose. Protected beautifully by his offensive line (no sacks once again), he willed it to a pair of second-half touchdowns with the kind of quarterbacking you just don’t see from a rookie.
The defense responded by literally tightening up the interior, limiting the Ravens to just a pair of field goals by Justin Tucker, who had four on the day. Even though the Ravens tacked on 117 more infantry yards in the second half for a total of 296, the Cleveland defense protected its goal line more zealously,
That enabled the offense, which was stymied in the first half after Mayfield connected with Perriman on a 28-yard scoring throw on the Browns’ second possession, to make it a game.
They actually had a chance to take the lead with a field goal in the final two minutes, but the desperate Ravens threw the kitchen-sink pass rush at Mayfield on four straight pass attempts from the Baltimore 39, forcing him to throw before he wanted.
Incompletions to David Njoku, Landry and Njoku again brought up a fourth down. On the last kitchen sink, he had running back Duke Johnson Jr. open over the middle underneath and tried to loft the ball to him over the head of Ravens linebacker C. J. Mosley, who tipped the ball to himself for Mayfield’s third pick of the day.
As the new face of Cleveland sports, who wound up with 376 yards passing, walked dejectedly off the field, Jackson came back onto the field and appeared to congratulate him on his effort. Little consolation, Mayfield seemed to indicate with his expression.
If you want to quibble on how close the Browns came to winning, all you have to do is go back to the final play of first half when Greg Joseph’s 46-yard field attempt drifted wide of the left upright by less than a foot.
Another quibble, this one centered on a quick whistle. Several minutes earlier, the Ravens had a chance to boost their first-half lead to 27-7 when Jackson ostensibly scored from the one-foot line on third down after jumping up and thrusting the football over the goal line with one hand.
As a sideline official ran in indicating touchdown, Browns linebacker Joe Schobert poked the football loose. It rolled to the 7-yard line, where safety Jabrill Peppers scooped it up and began running toward the Ravens’ goal line with no one in pursuit and got as far as the 35. A whistle had stopped play.
The call on the field was touchdown. But replay showed Jackson did not reach out far enough with the ball to break the plane of the goal line and it was overturned, giving the ball back to the Browns at the 7 due to the inadvertent whistle. Somewhat ironically, the very next play will also have Browns Nation talking.
Mayfield dropped back to pass and launched a perfect spiral to a wide-open Landry at the Cleveland 35. But as he reached for the ball, it hit his facemask and fell harmlessly to the ground. Had he caught it, it would have been a 93-yard touchdown and cut the lead to 20-14.
All in all, this game will be remembered by many fans for its many exciting plays and heart-stopping finish. But mainly it will be remembered as one where battling back in the face of a lot of adversity and nearly winning is a portent of a very bright future.