On Sunday, the Browns outlasted the Titans 41-35 behind a 38-point first half and a career day from quarterback Baker Mayfield. The win gave Cleveland a 9-3 record for the first time since 1994 and inched the team closer to breaking a 17-year playoff drought. (The Bills are the only team with as long a postseason drought this century.) The showing was monumental for a franchise that’s been mired in bad luck for the past two decades, and it instilled confidence in a quarterback who earlier this year looked to be a massive question mark.
It’s been an uneven season for Mayfield, the former no. 1 overall pick, but he feasted on the Titans secondary. According to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, Tennessee entered Sunday ranked 31st in opposing passer QBR off play-action, and Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski seemed to get the memo (although he’s never shied from incorporating play-action). Cleveland hit Tennessee’s defense, which came in ranked 28th in DVOA, right where it hurt, and did so often. Before the contest, Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler spoke glowingly of the Browns’ star running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who’ve largely powered Cleveland’s offensive success this season. But Sunday, Tennessee didn’t have any answer for Mayfield and the Browns’ passing game.
Mayfield went 20-for-25 with 290 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone. Cleveland’s offensive line dominated a Tennessee pass rush that came in 31st in pressure rate, allowing only one pressure on Mayfield’s 25 first-half attempts. That protection gave Mayfield time to set up explosive plays, like his 75-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Baker Mayfield is cookin' this afternoon!!— #RingerNFL (@ringernfl) December 6, 2020
Watching the Browns pass the ball all over the field against the Titans wasn’t what many expected. As Butler’s comments from last week indicated, most anticipated a meeting of classic ground-and-pound rushing attacks. But Chubb (18 carries, 80 yards, and one touchdown) and Hunt (14 carries and 33 yards) had muted impacts, and the Browns didn’t rely on them until the second half, when Cleveland carried a 31-point advantage. After the game, ESPN’s Dianna Russini asked receiver Jarvis Landry if Cleveland’s offensive identity is its run game. “No, we do anything we can to win,” Landry responded, “and we proved that today.”
Cleveland coasted to a victory, almost to a fault. The Browns let up in the second half, and the Titans outscored them 28-3 to pull within one score with 28 seconds left. But the Browns did enough to win and bolster their strong postseason positioning; they entered the week with a 68.3 percent of making the playoffs, according to Football Outsiders, and that’s bound to go up following this win.
After the game, Stefanski was asked whether he’d considered how much a postseason berth would mean to the Browns fan base. “We feel the support in the community,” he said. “I see the flags flying all over. We’re hoping that we’re putting a team out there that they can be proud of.”
There’s fair reason to be skeptical about whether the Browns are legitimate contenders. Entering Sunday, Cleveland’s offense ranked 16th in offensive DVOA and 19th in defensive DVOA. The Browns’ record against teams with winning records (Ravens, Colts, Steelers, and Raiders) was 1-3, and they were blown out by both the Ravens and Steelers earlier this year. But Cleveland has shown that it can play winning football, both as a run-oriented team and now as a pass-oriented team. For two years, it’s been clear that the franchise will go only as far as Mayfield’s arm can push them. And while Mayfield had been middling in the past four weeks—completing only 57.3 percent of his passes for 716 yards (7.5 yards per attempt), two touchdowns, and one turnover—he performed at a high level on Sunday. Mayfield’s 334 passing yards rank as the fifth most he’s thrown in a single game, and his performance came on a day when the Browns defense shut down one of the NFL’s most efficient offenses. That made it one of Cleveland’s best showings of the year—at least through the first half.
“I know we didn’t finish the way we wanted to, by any means,” Mayfield said, “but in the first half, that was the most complete game—complete half that we’ve played all year.”
There’s no understating how big a deal this is for the Browns, regardless of whether it’s fool’s gold or not. The Titans have obvious flaws that Stefanski and Co. did an exceptional job at exploiting. But Tennessee’s recent performances suggested that Mike Vrabel’s team could be rounding into the same form that carried it into last season’s AFC championship game—and the Browns completely dominated them. This was a statement game in which Cleveland proved it is worthy of being a playoff team.
The Browns don’t have an easy road ahead. They have to face the Ravens, who are behind Cleveland in the AFC North standings, next week, and they end the season against the Steelers. But regardless of how those games go, the Browns have put themselves in position to get back to the postseason. And for an organization that’s been a laughingstock for years, that’s all that matters right now.