Sunday, December 23, 2018

And the joyful beat goes on

 The undeniable and concrete proof that the 2018 Cleveland Browns have finally laid to rest the ghosts of the first 19 seasons since returning to the National Football League in 1999 was on display in the home finale Sunday against Cincinnati.

Critics who believe the team’s strong second half this season after beginning the campaign in much the same manner as those very forgettable losers of those last 19 seasons is a fluke, Sunday’s 26-18 victory over the Bengals should silence them.

Playing in front of a rare sold-out stadium by the lakefront, the brand new Browns, who entered the game knowing they were eliminated from the playoffs Saturday,  played a near perfect football game for the better part of three and a half quarters. They treated the believers and non-believers alike with the kind of football they have longed for for two decades.

In winning their third straight game and fifth in the last six, they made the Bengals look like the Browns of the last 20 years on both sides of the ball.

The final score in no way indicates how much the Browns dominated, compiling a 26-3 lead midway through the fourth quarter, putting points on the board on five consecutive possessions after whiffing on the first two.

Baker Mayfield threw three more touchdown passes against the Bengals, giving the rookie quarterback seven on the season against them as the Browns swept their first season series in the Battle of Ohio since 2002.

It also was the fifth home victory (5-2-1) of the season, only the second time since 1999 they own a winning record at home. The 2007 Browns won seven home games, dropping the season opener to (you guessed it) the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But this one didn’t come without a bit of drama in the final seven and a half minutes, painfully mindful of many games since the resurrection, due mainly to yet another special teams breakdown.

The Cleveland offense kept the Bengals defense off balance throughout most of the afternoon, Mayfield shredding the secondary with precise throws after starting slowly on the first two drives, and Nick Chubb grinding out tough yardage.

The two rookies, whose performances this season, especially in the last seven games, give rise to more than just hope among those in Browns Nation. They are legitimate threats to break a big play at any time.

Mayfield raised his touchdown pass total this season to 24 with scoring strikes to tight ends David Njoku and Darren Fells and wide receiver Rashard Higgins. Chubb gouged the Bengals defense for 112 yards, moving him within 28 yards of a 1,000-yard season.

After taking the 26-3 lead on the second of Greg Joseph’s two field goals, the Cleveland defense encountered its only belch of the game. permitting a six-play, 75-yard scoring drive, tight end C. J. Uzomah hauling in a 14-yard scoring pass from Jeff Driskel.

After forcing the Browns’ first three-and-out of the day, the Bengals became the third opponent this season to block a Britton Colquitt punt and took over at the Cleveland 23. Three plays later, it was 26-18 on a John Ross touchdowns and successful two-point conversion.

Other special teams transgressions that hurt included a double-team block on the opening kickoff and yet another in the season-long series of holds during a punt return.  It’s pretty safe to say special teams coordinator Amos Jones will be working elsewhere next season.

The crowd in some quarters no doubt anticipated the worst when the score tightened and another frustrating loss loomed. Don’t blame them. They have been conditioned over the years to feel that way in the latter stages of close games that usually end with a loss.

However, they did not take into consideration the Mayfield factor. These are not the old Browns that cave late. It is almost as though the kid wills his team to win. Big plays arrive quite unexpectedly.

That momentum the Bengals, who scored all their points in the final quarter, had disappeared suddenly – just as suddenly as they believed they were back in the game –  and dramatically with a shade more than two minutes left.

It was a simple, seemingly harmless, flat pattern run by Njoku on second-and-four at the Cleveland 31. The big tight end grabbed the ball at the 35, shed a tackle by free safety Jessie Bates, turned around and saw nothing but a wide-open field.

He matriculated his way down the field (as Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram liked to say) until Cincy linebacker Hardy Nickerson ended the foot race at the Bengals’ two-yard line.
It was a case of needing – and getting – a big play when it meant the difference between winning and losing.

Three knees later (the Bengals were out of timeouts) the victory was assured. It proved once again this team has finally discovered the secret to winning football, the ability to hold on to a lead, and know what it takes to achieve it.

That is one of the big differences – arguably the biggest – between this team, the one since the departure of head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and Jackson’s team for the first eight games of the season.

Mayfield, who is thoroughly enjoying himself since the Jackson firing, rubbed it in after Njoku’s’ 66-yard catch and run. After the play, he strutted almost tauntingly downfield along the Cincinnati sideline, where Jackson stood, glowering at him  almost chillingly for what seemed like 10 or 15 seconds, before backpedaling and spinning away joyfully.

It was as though he was telling his ex-coach this is not the same team he left two months ago. If the message wasn’t received following the Browns earlier victory down in Cincinnati, it surely was Sunday.

What Browns fans saw on this day was a portent of the future. The corner, as has been stated here, has been turned.

The old Browns most likely would have found a way to lose a game like this. And therein lies another big difference from seasons past. It sure looks as though the NFL’s most tortured fan base in the 21st Century finally has good reason to feel good about the future.

Wait’ll next year has clearly taken on a whole new meaning.

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