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So the Browns Can Beat the Bengals, but What About the Rest of the NFL?

Cleveland picked up its first win of the season on Thursday night, but this team has a long way to go to prove it can stand up against the NFL’s elite

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Two weeks into the NFL season, it’s still unclear what the Cleveland Browns are. We’ve seen flashes of the bad—like in Week 1, when the Browns looked discombobulated and underwhelming against the defending AFC North champion Ravens. Baltimore flustered Baker Mayfield so much that the 2018 no. 1 pick didn’t look quite so promising anymore. And in Week 2, we got flashes of the good—a 35-30 win over the Bengals that showed some of the potential this franchise has hoped to realize for the past two years.

The Browns scored on three of their four first-half drives, and Mayfield looked largely in control throughout most of the game, completing 16 of 23 passes for 219 yards, two touchdowns, and one pick. Cleveland’s offensive line—which was without starting right tackle Jack Conklin (ankle, finger)—didn’t relinquish a sack this week. That group led the way for the Browns’ dynamic tailbacks, Nick Chubb (22 carries, 124 yards, two TDs) and Kareem Hunt (10 carries, 86 yards, one TD), to have productive evenings on the ground. It’s exactly the offense that first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski envisioned, and it powered the Browns to their first win of the year.

“I think that’s gonna build confidence for us,” Mayfield told reporters after the game. “And us playing complementary football with the defense—that’s the scary part, is if we start clicking and keep getting better, it’s gonna be a fun ride.”

The Ringer’s Kevin Clark wrote a piece Wednesday about the Browns’ latest crossroads as a franchise. This line in particular stood out:

When I asked [GM Andrew] Berry how he built the team, he was clear: “We’re going to be QB-centric because it’s the most important position in our sport and, you could argue, perhaps in all sports,” Berry explains, saying the most important job of any front office is to find a quarterback, and once you have that quarterback, to support him.

Mayfield seemed like all that and more during his rookie campaign, but following a disappointing second season (one that was preceded by the splashy acquisition of All-Pro wideout Odell Beckham Jr.) and a rough outing on Sunday, his franchise-savior status was in question. There was already pressure on Mayfield to perform this year, but going into Thursday night, he also needed to avoid being upstaged by fellow no. 1 pick and new Ohio counterpart Joe Burrow. And he did.

Cleveland’s success revolves around Mayfield’s. Its front office has fully embraced the team-building philosophy of surrounding its QB with as much talent as possible, and that strategy worked out against Cincy. Behind Mayfield’s strong outing Thursday night, his surrounding parts shined. Beckham hauled in a 43-yard touchdown pass; Chubb and Hunt helped put the game away with 26- and 33-yard rushes on the final drive; and tight end Austin Hooper picked up first downs with each of his two receptions.

This is why Cleveland hired Stefanski, the former Vikings offensive coordinator who helped journeyman Case Keenum to a career-best year in 2017 and unlocked Kirk Cousins in 2019. He’s expected to boost Mayfield’s confidence and build on the potential the QB showed when he was named to the 2018 All-Rookie Team. Stefanski delivered some of that Thursday, getting Mayfield going early on with rollouts and play-action passes. Mayfield went 11-for-14 with 167 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, including going 4-for-5 for 87 yards on play-action passes, per Next Gen Stats.

“I thought [Mayfield] did a nice job,” Stefanski told reporters after the game. “We moved the ball, he had some explosive plays, he made some plays with his feet, thought he was good on third down. Always gonna try to learn from a mistake, so that interception, I know he wants it back. But bottom line, we’ve gotta learn from it and put that in the memory bank.”

Still, while the Browns looked good, this performance came against Cincinnati, a team that consistently got in its own way with mistimed snaps, simple drops, and sloppy defensive possessions. The Bengals still managed to hang around; they just failed to capitalize on the opportunities the Browns gifted them. On Cleveland’s opening drive of the second half, the Browns turned the ball over on downs after running four plays inside the Bengals’ 2-yard line. Early in the fourth quarter, Mayfield threw an interception just as the Browns were closing in on the red zone. Burrow responded by throwing a touchdown to Mike Thomas, drawing the Bengals within one score with five minutes to go, but Chubb and Hunt led a six-play, 75-yard scoring drive to close things out late.

The Browns showed what they are capable of this week, but they can’t afford to suffer self-inflicted mistakes against better-coached and more talented teams. Not if they’re hoping to really build off Thursday’s outing. Their next three matchups come against Washington, the Cowboys, and the Colts. Cleveland proved Thursday that it can handle a lesser opponent, but this group will need to show it can do the same against the league’s top contenders before we believe that this isn’t the Same Old Browns.