It would have been plenty for the Cleveland Browns to have reached respectable status this season. They are, after all, the Browns, who have stumbled and bumbled their way through so much of their franchise history and who took the term laughingstock to new depths by posting a combined record of 1-31 over the previous two seasons.
But all of that was before Baker Mayfield arrived, and all Mayfield has changed for the Browns is everything. It is mid-December and these Browns — Mayfield’s Browns — are talking about playoff possibilities, not jockeying for the top overall pick in the NFL draft. These Browns have zoomed past respectable and are honest-to-goodness postseason contenders who will likely be playing a meaningful Week 16 game, thanks to Saturday night’s 17-16 triumph in Denver.
“We’re resilient right now,” Mayfield told the NFL Network after the game. “We’ve got a lot of confidence. Yeah, absolutely, it was not our best game whatsoever. It started with myself. We didn’t do everything right at all, a couple turnovers. We’ve just got to take care of the ball when we’re on the road. But the most important thing is finding a way to win, scrapping it out all the way until the clock hits zero.”
That’s exactly what the Browns did, thwarting the Broncos’ final drive toward a possible game-winning field goal attempt on a fourth-down sack by safety Jabrill Peppers. That ended a game that featured mistakes by both quarterbacks and questionable late-game tactics by both coaches.
The Browns weren’t all that concerned about aesthetics, however. They improved to 6-7-1. They’re 4-2 since firing Hue Jackson as their coach and promoting Gregg Williams from defensive coordinator to interim head coach, and reaching the playoffs is not out of the question.
They trail the 7-5-1 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 7-6 Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. They’re behind a jumble of 7-6 teams — the Ravens, Miami Dolphins, Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans — in the chase for the second wild-card spot in the AFC. The Broncos dropped to 6-8.
“Every week is a playoff week,” Peppers told the NFL Network.
It’s easy to forget now that taking Mayfield over fellow quarterback Sam Darnold with the No. 1 overall selection in this year’s NFL draft was far from automatic and actually a controversial decision by General Manager John Dorsey. It seems like such a long time ago that the Browns’ plan was to have Mayfield watch and wait his turn as a rookie behind Tyrod Taylor, the veteran obtained in an offseason trade with the Buffalo Bills to be the place-holder at the position.
“Our guys believe a lot in him,” Williams, speaking at his postgame news conference, said of Mayfield.
Mayfield has been everything that Dorsey and the Browns could have wanted, and more. He wasn’t great Saturday night, throwing an interception and losing a fumble in an 18-for-31, 188-yard passing performance. But he did throw two touchdown passes. And the Cleveland defense did its part with two interceptions of Broncos quarterback Case Keenum.
The game came down to a finish that put Williams and Broncos Coach Vance Joseph in the spotlight. And not in a good way, as it turned out.
The Broncos trailed, 17-13, and faced a fourth-and-one situation at the Cleveland 6-yard line with about five minutes to play. It has been a season in which fourth-down gambles by NFL coaches have become the norm rather than the exception, and this one seemed almost obvious. But Joseph opted for the field goal, saying later that he wanted points on the board and believed in his defense.
“I trust our defense to get a stop there,” Joseph said at his postgame news conference.
The Browns came close to winning the game without giving the ball back to the Broncos. Tailback Nick Chubb began Cleveland’s next drive with a 40-yard run. The Browns ended up facing a fourth-and-one quandary of their own at the Denver 10-yard line in the final two minutes, with the Broncos out of timeouts.
Williams left his offense on the field, hoping to get a first down that would have allowed the Browns to run out the clock. That first down would have come courtesy of a Broncos’ offside penalty thanks to Mayfield’s hard count. But Williams signaled for a timeout just before the infraction. That gave the Broncos a reprieve, and they promptly tackled Chubb for a two-yard loss on the fourth-down play. Williams, a coach who never has been accused of lacking self-assurance, had outsmarted himself.
The Broncos took over at their 13-yard line with 1:49 remaining, needing a field goal to win. Joseph’s late-game strategy could have been vindicated. But it was not to be. It was Williams who got off the hook for his timeout gaffe, thanks to Peppers’s fourth-and-10 sack of Keenum on a play that began from midfield with the Broncos not far from being in kicker Brandon McManus’s mile-high range.
“Winning on the road is something that didn’t happen here for a long time,” Mayfield said. “The fact that we have two wins on the road this year is huge. I don’t care what anybody says. Some of the guys in the locker room have never won on the road. They’ve never had that feeling. ... So there’s a lot of confidence right now, and it’s going the right way.”