Close postseason losses hurt. Close postseason losses to a backup quarterback are even worse. And close postseason losses to a backup quarterback after a backbreaking and controversial play goes against your team are their own special circle of hell—especially when your team is the long-suffering Cleveland Browns. Yes, Cleveland suffered a little more on Sunday thanks to a 22-17 loss to the Chiefs—but even so, the Browns’ performance in this game and the season as a whole point to a new era of Cleveland football.
Let’s start with the fumble-touchback, which upended the game. Closing in on the end of the second half, the Browns had a golden chance to put a touchdown on the board and cut into the Chiefs’ 16-3 lead. On a first-and-10 from the Kansas City 26-yard line, Baker Mayfield found Rashard Higgins near the right sideline. Higgins stretched out for a would-be touchdown, but before the ball crossed the goal line, he fumbled:
From potential TD to touchback— ESPN (@espn) January 17, 2021
(via @NFLBrasil) pic.twitter.com/in0mtlXC38
Because the ball was fumbled through the end zone and out of bounds, the Chiefs were awarded the football as a touchback. Instead of seven points—or even three—the Browns got nothing and the Chiefs got the ball at their own 20-yard line.
In 2019, I wrote that this overly punitive rule could spark the NFL’s next officiating crisis. The snafu in this game may not bloom into a full-blown disaster for the league, but it did affect the outcome of this game. It virtually cost the Browns seven points, and then the Chiefs got a field goal on their ensuing drive—something they may not have had time to do had the Browns run a play or two at the goal line. That’s an either seven- or 10-point swing in a game Cleveland lost by five. The dumbest rule in football struck again—this time in the divisional round of the playoffs.
What made this play sting even more for the Browns is that, while the officials were able to review the play to confirm that Higgins fumbled before breaking the plane of the goal line, they weren’t able to go back and penalize the obviously illegal helmet-to-helmet that caused the fumble in the first place:
The second Sorensen makes -- obviously illegal -- helmet to helmet contact, Higgins completely loses control over the ball. Officiating shouldn't be altering the outcome of games and seasons but it does every single week. pic.twitter.com/Tz1U3PK68k— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) January 17, 2021
This was the most backbreaking play for the Browns on Sunday, though it probably isn’t the only one they’d like to have back. On the opening drive of the third quarter, Mayfield threw an ill-advised pass across his body on a scramble … and found Chiefs defensive back Tyrann Mathieu:
Baker wanted Jarvis Landry, but got Tyrann Mathieu... pic.twitter.com/sJmmjEcCL6— Shea Dixon (@Sheadixon) January 17, 2021
The Browns offense punted just twice against the Kansas City defense, but these two turnovers were costly. Cleveland came into the game with a red-hot offense but managed just 17 points against a defense that ranked worse than the Jets in DVOA. Mayfield averaged just 5.5 yards per attempt, and despite the Browns’ running backs averaging 5.3 yards per carry, Cleveland failed to establish the devastating ground game that had been so effective this season. Then, when the Browns got the ball with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, they used half that time to drive just 12 yards. After punting, the Cleveland defense couldn’t stop the Chad Henne–led Chiefs from draining the clock, including on a fourth-down play for all the marbles:
ANDY REID WENT FOR IT. #RunItBack #NFLPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/0JSzsCYMvR— NFL (@NFL) January 17, 2021
And that’s before getting to the injury issues. Jedrick Wills Jr., Cleveland’s starting left tackle—and the no. 10 pick in the 2020 draft—left the game on the Browns’ first snap. Wills started all but one game for Cleveland this year and had helped anchor a dominant offensive line that ranked first in Pro Football Focus’s grades for both pass blocking and run blocking. After Wills appeared to roll his ankle, backup lineman Kendall Lamm replaced him … until Lamm hurt his elbow at the beginning of the third quarter. The Browns ended up with Blake Hance at the position, a guy best known for being the player Mayfield first met just minutes before the Browns-Steelers game last week.
Despite the mishaps, not everything went against Cleveland on Sunday. In fact, the Chiefs were just as cursed. Patrick Mahomes missed nearly the entire second half after entering the concussion protocol, and the Chiefs missed an extra point and a field goal—mistakes that seemed like they could prove crucial when Cleveland had the ball down five in the fourth quarter. Henne threw one of the worst passes you’ll ever see in relief of Mahomes, essentially gifting the Browns a free extra possession:
Chad Henne finds a WIDE OPEN Karl Joseph in the endzone— PFF (@PFF) January 17, 2021
Still, the Browns couldn’t capitalize, and they instead have to settle for coming thisclose to toppling the reigning Super Bowl champs and heading to the AFC championship. That result stings—but given that this franchise has been in the NFL’s cellar for decades, the sting of a close playoff loss feels much, much better than the sting of hopeless, embarrassing mediocrity.
The Browns have officially exited the NFL’s dark ages, and they should expect to contend for playoff spots for the immediate future. Mayfield had the best season of his three-year career, throwing for 3,563 yards and 26 touchdowns with just eight interceptions, despite star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. missing most of the year with a torn ACL. Head coach Kevin Stefanski built an effective offense and broke the Browns’ playoff drought in just his first season. First-year general manager Andrew Berry had a successful debut draft, and appears poised to provide stability to a front office that’s experienced nothing but turmoil for years. And with players like Wills, Myles Garrett, Nick Chubb, and Denzel Ward, the Browns have plenty of pieces to build around. No major contributors are free agents at the end of this season, and Cleveland has an above-average amount of cap space to work with.
This is the beginning, not the end. The Browns made the playoffs, blew out the Steelers in Pittsburgh, nearly made the NFL championship game, and appear to have their coach, quarterback, and general manager of the future. For the first time this century, the future looks bright in Cleveland.