Behind Baker Mayfield, the Browns and Their Playoff Hopes Mature

The Cleveland Browns’ postseason drought grew from a crabby and cranky toddler into an exasperating adolescent. After its tumultuous teenagers, it appears able to say goodbye.

The Browns are primed to qualify for the playoffs for the primary time in 18 years after bludgeoning the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, a 41-35 victory in Nashville that improved their safety within the standings to an extent largely alien in northeast Ohio for the reason that present incarnation of the franchise returned in 1999. Solely twice earlier than in that span had Cleveland completed with even a nonlosing report, however the Browns are actually 9-Three for the primary time since 1994, once they received their final playoff sport and Invoice Belichick prowled their sideline.

It’s unclear no matter occurred to that man, however the Browns, within the meantime, endured one self-inflicted indignity after one other: from a relocation to Baltimore to quite a few regime modifications to a 1-31 stretch that produced the draft capital that has spurred this revival. The Browns’ high offensive picks from their vital 2018 draft — quarterback Baker Mayfield, taken first over all, and working again Nick Chubb, chosen within the second spherical — contributed to all 5 touchdowns in opposition to the Titans (8-4) on Sunday, every coming within the dizzying first half, which produced a most inconceivable halftime rating of Cleveland 38, Tennessee 7.

“I feel individuals know that we’re a superb group now,” Chubb mentioned.

This sport represented a pivot level in Cleveland’s season, directly a possibility to dismiss a notion that it had puffed its report with victories in opposition to inferior groups and to affirm it’s levelheaded sufficient to defeat one other A.F.C. contender. In a matchup of 8-Three groups with highly effective dashing offenses — Cleveland ranked first within the N.F.L., Tennessee second — each strayed from kind.

The Titans, who had 5 turnovers all season, dedicated three on Sunday. And the Browns, echoing the aggressive strategy they deployed in scoring 49 factors at Dallas earlier this season, known as trick performs and handed usually, sprinkling in Chubb and his dynamic backfield counterpart, Kareem Hunt, as a substitute of counting on them. The play design and play-calling of Coach Kevin Stefanski, coupled with Mayfield’s execution, generated one landing move after one other — a dart to Jarvis Landry, a goal-line seize by offensive lineman Kendall Lamm, a deep ball off a nifty play faux to Donovan Peoples-Jones, a lofted toss to Rashard Higgins. At halftime, Mayfield had accomplished 21 of 26 passes for 296 of his 334 yards.

“He’s enjoying at a excessive stage and he has to proceed to take action,” Stefanski mentioned. “We’re relying on him, and he is aware of that.”

In a sport that featured 76 whole factors and 889 whole yards, it was two defensive performs that really powered the Browns. These performs countered consecutive first-quarter carries by Derrick Henry, who appeared to embark on his annual December rampage final week when he rushed for 178 yards and three touchdowns in opposition to Indianapolis. On Sunday, Cleveland stuffed Henry, among the many league’s finest short-yardage backs, on fourth-and-1, then stripped him deep in Tennessee territory. The Browns’ 3-Zero lead ballooned to 17-0. Had the Titans’ Mike Vrabel coached beneath a ladder whereas a black cat circled his toes, the primary half couldn’t have gone worse for Tennessee.

The Browns’ minus-15 level differential is the worst for a group that has received a minimum of 9 of its first 12 video games in N.F.L. historical past, in line with the Elias Sports activities Bureau. With occasional exceptions — Houston (minus-7) final season, Buffalo (minus-57) and Tennessee (minus-22) in 2017 — groups with destructive level differentials don’t attain the playoffs as a result of groups with destructive level differentials usually don’t win that always.

The Browns had received their final three video games by a mixed 10 factors, however for them the margin was irrelevant. They’re successful video games by minimizing errors — Mayfield fumbled late Sunday, however he hasn’t thrown an interception since Oct. 25 — and recognizing their strengths.

The playoff hype that reached a zenith earlier than the 2019 season, when an inflow of expertise raised expectations to an unhealthy diploma, is extra official now that Cleveland, below Stefanski and the brand new normal supervisor, Andrew Berry, is rooted in stability.

“They should reset their expectations,” Mayfield mentioned, referring to Browns followers. “All of us have to reset the usual, and that’s what I’ve been saying. There’s a brand new commonplace, there’s a basis we’ve got to proceed to construct on and enhance. That’s simply the way in which we have to deal with issues.”

With 4 video games remaining, Cleveland holds the highest wild-card spot within the A.F.C., a sport forward of Miami and Indianapolis (each 8-4), which at the moment have the opposite two postseason berths, and two video games forward of Las Vegas (7-5). The division rival Baltimore (6-5), Cleveland’s opponent subsequent Monday night time, and New England (5-6) are additionally within the combine.

If all goes as scheduled, the Browns’ season will finish at house in opposition to unbeaten Pittsburgh on Jan. 3, two days in need of the 18th anniversary of their final playoff sport and a fantastic day to bid it farewell.

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